is a novelist, essayist, and critic.
The Secret History
has been translated into twenty-four
languages and is available in hardcover from Knopf.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. The prologue offers glimpses of the household before Robin's
body is discovered. What do the descriptions of Charlotte, Edie,
the great-aunts, and Ida Rhew show about the individual characters
and the family dynamics? Do the reactions of Charlotte and Edie to
the tragedy simply reinforce an established pattern or does a more
profound change occur? How do their stories about Robin-their
"exquisite delineation of his character-painstakingly ornamented
over a number of years" [p. 19]-differ from their embellished and
often improvised memories of life at Tribulation and other family
2. Tartt writes "From the time she was old enough to talk,
Harriet had been a slightly distressing presence in the Cleve
household. . . . Harriet was not disobedient, exactly, or unruly,
but she was haughty and somehow managed to irritate nearly every
adult with whom she came in contact" [pp. 27-28]. Does Harriett
live up to this description? Does she change over the course of the
3. "She did not care for children's books in which the children
grew up, as what 'growing up' entailed (in life as in books) was a
swift and inexplicable dwindling of character" [p. 157]. How do the
adventure stories Harriet prefers inform her notions of what
"growing up" entails? What does her choice of books reveal about
her perceptions of how the world works and the things she will need
to survive? Does she have a greater understanding of the adult
world than most children her age?
4. The elderly Cleve sisters all have clear places in the
family's self-portrait. Edie, for example, "was both field marshal
and autocrat, the person of greatest power in the family and the
person most likely to act" [p. 28]. Do the other sisters fall as
easily into general characterizations? Are Charlotte, Allison, and
Harriet contemporary versions of the older generation? How do
Tartt's descriptions of minor characters like Mrs. Fountain [pp.
33-35] and Hely's mother [pp. 212-14] help to bring the central
female figures into sharper focus?
5. "Because her father was so quarrelsome and disruptive, and so
dissatisfied with everything, it seemed right to Harriet that he
did not live at home" [p. 68]. Why does Harriet see her father in
such a stark, uncompromising way? What insight does this offer into
Harriet's approach to her emotions and her experiences? Are there
incidents in the novel that present a different, more sympathetic
view of Dix?
6. Harriet pieces together her case against Danny Ratliff from
conversations with Pemberton Hull [pp. 105-108] and Ida Rhew [pp.
143-50], information she's gleaned from local newspapers, and
"random little scraps she'd picked up here and there over the
years" [p. 119]. Does the evidence Harriet collects provide
convincing proof of Danny's guilt? What factors contribute to
Harriet's confidence that she has solved the mystery of Robin's
death? What makes Harriet decide to track down Robin's killer? Does
Harriet understand the emotions that trigger her need to find
Robin's killer? Why is she so sure that Danny is guilty of the
crime? How valid is her reasoning and where does it fall apart?
7. How do the physical settings help to establish the social
landscape of the novel? Why does Tartt call Tribulation an "extinct
colossus" [p. 43], for example? What is the significance of the
mounting chaos and disarray in Harriet's own home? What does the
new housing development, Oak Lawn Estates [pp. 165-66],
8. The account of Harriet and Hely's attempt to steal a
poisonous snake from Eugene's apartment and their confrontation
with the Ratliff brothers [pp. 300-330] is almost unbearably
frightening and intense. What devices does Tartt use to build and
sustain the suspense?
9. A collection of misfits, fanatics, and criminals, the Ratliff
family seems to embody Edie's view of the white underclass: "The
poor white has nothing to blame for his station but his own
character. Well, of course, that won't do. That would mean
having to assume some responsibility for his own laziness and sorry
behavior" [p. 146]. Do the portraits of the Ratliff brothers
reinforce or belie Edie's assumptions? What redeeming
characteristics do Danny and Eugene have and how does Tartt make
them apparent? Why has Tartt included Curtis in the family? How
does his presence add to our understanding of the family?
10. A strong matriarch presides over both Harriet's family and
the Ratliffs. What qualities do Edie and Gum have in common? How
does each exercise her power? To what extent are their approaches
to life defined by their social status and personal experiences?
Does Gum's own life, for example, justify "the main lesson she had
drilled into her grandsons: not to expect much from the world" [p.
357]? In what ways do the lessons Edie imposes, either explicitly
or implicitly, reflect her own strengths and weaknesses? What
comparisons can be drawn between Danny and Harriet's families and,
in particular, between Danny and Harriet themselves?
11. Why does Ida Rhew play such a critical role
in Harriet's life? How does Ida's position in the household
illuminate the shortcomings not only of Charlotte, but of the other
adults in Harriet's life? How do the family's reaction to her
departure and Ida's response to being fired [pp. 357-67] undermine
Harriet's vision of her world? In what ways do the emotions she
experiences reflect both her perspective as a child and her
emerging awareness and acceptance of adult uncertainties and moral
12. What do you make of the end of the novel? Hely thinks, "The
mission was accomplished, the battle won; somehow-incredibly-she
had done exactly what she said she would, and got away with the
whole thing" [p. 624]. Harriet decides "She'd learned things she
never knew, things she had no idea of knowing, and yet in a strange
way it was the hidden message of Captain Scott, the part of the
story she's never seen until now: that victory and collapse were
sometimes the same thing" [p. 544]. What do you think of these two
very different assessments? How do they reflect the natures of the
two characters? Does it matter that Robin's murder remains unsolved
or do you accept, as Libby says, that "the world is full of things
we don't understand" [p. 140]?
13. The Little Friend explores the
relationships between blacks and whites in Alexandria from several
perspectives. The blatant racism of the Ratliffs is clearly shown
in such incidents as the shooting at the river [p. 142]. In which
ways does Harriet's family also exhibit a deep-seated, if more
subtle, strain of racial prejudice? Is Harriet's shocked reaction
to Ida's story about the church burning [pp. 146-47] a sign of her
naiveté or does it reveal a sense of morality that distinguishes
her (and by extension, her peers) from past generations?
14. The novel begins with stretches of long, languorous prose
but later the pace quickens. What techniques does Tartt use to
15. The term "Southern Gothic" is often used to describe writing
set in the American South, from Tennessee Williams' and Carson
McCullers' tales of families shaped by tragedy, insanity, and
alcoholism to Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles. Are
there elements in The Little Friend that can be
described as Southern Gothic and, if so, what are they? Were you
reminded of other literary styles or authors while reading the
16. The novel's epigraphs come from St. Thomas Aquinas and Harry
Houdini. Why is this rather odd coupling of a religious scholar and
saint and a magician appropriate to the story Tartt tells? What
lesson is implicit in both quotations? Has Harriet gained "the
slenderest knowledge of the highest things" by the novel's end?