The Secret History

Paperback | April 13, 2004

byDonna Tartt

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Donna Tartt, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for her most recent novel, The Goldfinch, established herself as a major talent with The Secret History, which has become a contemporary classic.

Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and forever, and they discover how hard it can be to truly live and how easy it is to kill.

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From the Publisher

Donna Tartt, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for her most recent novel, The Goldfinch, established herself as a major talent with The Secret History, which has become a contemporary classic.Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way ...

From the Jacket

Truly deserving of the accolade a modern classic, Donna Tartt's novel is a remarkable achievement--both compelling and elegant, dramatic and playful. Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world awa...

Donna Tartt won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for her most recent Novel. The Goldfinch Her novelsl The Secret History and The Little Friend were also international bestsellers. She was born in Greenwood, Mississippi, and is a graduate of Bennington College.

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:576 pages, 8 × 5.2 × 1 inPublished:April 13, 2004Publisher:Knopf Doubleday Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:1400031702

ISBN - 13:9781400031702

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PROLOGUETHE SNOW in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history—state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter; the college closed, the dye factory in Hampden shut down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New York, as far away as Boston.   It is difficult to believe that Henry’s modest plan could have worked so well despite these unforeseen events. We hadn’t intended to hide the body where it couldn’t be found. In fact, we hadn’t hidden it at all but had simply left it where it fell in hopes that some luckless passer-by would stumble over it before anyone even noticed he was missing. This was a tale that told itself simply and well: the loose rocks, the body at the bottom of the ravine with a clean break in the neck, and the muddy skidmarks of dug-in heels pointing the way down; a hiking accident, no more, no less, and it might have been left at that, at quiet tears and a small funeral, had it not been for the snow that fell that night; it covered him without a trace, and ten days later, when the thaw finally came, the state troopers and the FBI and the searchers from the town all saw that they had been walking back and forth over his body until the snow above it was packed down like ice.   *   It is difficult to believe that such an uproar took place over an act for which I was partially responsible, even more difficult to believe I could have walked through it—the cameras, the uniforms, the black crowds sprinkled over Mount Cataract like ants in a sugar bowl—without incurring a blink of suspicion. But walking through it all was one thing; walking away, unfortunately, has proved to be quite another, and though once I thought I had left that ravine forever on an April afternoon long ago, now I am not so sure. Now the searchers have departed, and life has grown quiet around me, I have come to realize that while for years I might have imagined myself to be somewhere else, in reality I have been there all the time: up at the top by the muddy wheel-ruts in the new grass, where the sky is dark over the shivering apple blossoms and the first chill of the snow that will fall that night is already in the air.   What are you doing up here? said Bunny, surprised, when he found the four of us waiting for him.   Why, looking for new ferns, said Henry.   And after we stood whispering in the underbrush—one last look at the body and a last look round, no dropped keys, lost glasses, everybody got everything?—and then started single file through the woods, I took one glance back through the saplings that leapt to close the path behind me. Though I remember the walk back and the first lonely flakes of snow that came drifting through the pines, remember piling gratefully into the car and starting down the road like a family on vacation, with Henry driving clench-jawed through the potholes and the rest of us leaning over the seats and talking like children, though I remember only too well the long terrible night that lay ahead and the long terrible days and nights that followed, I have only to glance over my shoulder for all those years to drop away and I see it behind me again, the ravine, rising all green and black through the saplings, a picture that will never leave me.   I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.   BOOK I   CHAPTER 1   DOES SUCH a thing as “the fatal flaw,” that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.   A moi. L’histoire d’une de mes folies.   My name is Richard Papen. I am twenty-eight years old and I had never seen New England or Hampden College until I was nineteen. I am a Californian by birth and also, I have recently discovered, by nature. The last is something I admit only now, after the fact. Not that it matters.   I grew up in Plano, a small silicon village in the north. No sisters, no brothers. My father ran a gas station and my mother stayed at home until I got older and times got tighter and she went to work, answering phones in the office of one of the big chip factories outside San Jose.   Plano. The word conjures up drive-ins, tract homes, waves of heat rising from the blacktop. My years there created for me an expendable past, disposable as a plastic cup. Which I suppose was a very great gift, in a way. On leaving home I was able to fabricate a new and far more satisfying history, full of striking, simplistic environmental influences; a colorful past, easily accessible to strangers.   The dazzle of this fictive childhood—full of swimming pools and orange groves and dissolute, charming show-biz parents—has all but eclipsed the drab original. In fact, when I think about my real childhood I am unable to recall much about it at all except a sad jumble of objects: the sneakers I wore year-round; coloring books and comics from the supermarket; little of interest, less of beauty. I was quiet, tall for my age, prone to freckles. I didn’t have many friends but whether this was due to choice or circumstance I do not now know. I did well in school, it seems, but not exceptionally well; I liked to read—Tom Swift, the Tolkien books—but also to watch television, which I did plenty of, lying on the carpet of our empty living room in the long dull afternoons after school.   I honestly can’t remember much else about those years except a certain mood that permeated most of them, a melancholy feeling that I associate with watching “The Wonderful World of Disney” on Sunday nights. Sunday was a sad day—early to bed, school the next morning, I was constantly worried my homework was wrong—but as I watched the fireworks go off in the night sky, over the floodlit castles of Disneyland, I was consumed by a more general sense of dread, of imprisonment within the dreary round of school and home: circumstances which, to me at least, presented sound empirical argument for gloom. My father was mean, and our house ugly, and my mother didn’t pay much attention to me; my clothes were cheap and my haircut too short and no one at school seemed to like me that much; and since all this had been true for as long as I could remember, I felt things would doubtless continue in this depressing vein as far as I could foresee. In short: I felt my existence was tainted, in some subtle but essential way.   I suppose it’s not odd, then, that I have trouble reconciling my life to those of my friends, or at least to their lives as I perceive them to be. Charles and Camilla are orphans (how I longed to be an orphan when I was a child!) reared by grandmothers and great-aunts in a house in Virginia: a childhood I like to think about, with horses and rivers and sweet-gum trees. And Francis. His mother, when she had him, was only seventeen—a thin-blooded, capricious girl with red hair and a rich daddy, who ran off with the drummer for Vance Vane and his Musical Swains. She was home in three weeks, and the marriage was annulled in six; and, as Francis is fond of saying, the grandparents brought them up like brother and sister, him and his mother, brought them up in such a magnanimous style that even the gossips were impressed—English nannies and private schools, summers in Switzerland, winters in France. Consider even bluff old Bunny, if you would. Not a childhood of reefer coats and dancing lessons, any more than mine was. But an American childhood. Son of a Clemson football star turned banker. Four brothers, no sisters, in a big noisy house in the suburbs, with sailboats and tennis rackets and golden retrievers; summers on Cape Cod, boarding schools near Boston and tailgate picnics during football season; an upbringing vitally present in Bunny in every respect, from the way he shook your hand to the way he told a joke.   I do not now nor did I ever have anything in common with any of them, nothing except a knowledge of Greek and the year of my life I spent in their company. And if love is a thing held in common, I suppose we had that in common, too, though I realize that might sound odd in light of the story I am about to tell.   How to begin.

Bookclub Guide

1. Richard states that he ended up at Hampden College by a “trick of fate.” What do you think of this statement? Do you believe in fate?2. When discussing Bacchae and the Dionysiac ritual with his students Julian states, “We don’t like to admit it, but the idea of losing control is one that fascinates controlled people such as ourselves more than almost anything. All truly civilized people--the ancients no less than us--have civilized themselves through the willful repression of the old, animal self” (p. 38). What is your opinion of this theory? Are we all attracted to that which is forbidden? Do we all secretly wish we could let ourselves go and act on our animal instincts? Is it true that “beauty is terror”?3. “I suppose there is a certain crucial interval in everyone’s life when character is fixed forever: for me, it was that first fall term spent at Hampden” (p. 80). Did you have such a crucial interval in your life? What/when was it?4. In the idyllic beginning it is easy to see why Richard is drawn to the group of Greek scholars. It is only after they begin to unravel that we see the sinister side of each of the characters. Do you think any one of the characters possesses true evil? Is there such a thing as true evil, or is there something redeeming in everyone’s character?5. In the beginning of the novel, Bunny’s behavior is at times endearing and at others maddening. What was your initial opinion of Bunny? Does it change as the story develops?6. At times Bunny, with his selfish behavior, seems devoid of a conscience, yet he is the most disturbed by the murder of the farmer. Is he more upset because he was left out of the group or because he feels what happened is wrong?7. Henry says to Richard, “My life, for the most part, has been very stale and colorless. Dead, I mean. The world has always been an empty place to me. I was incapable of enjoying even the simplest things. I felt dead in everything I did. . . . But then it changed . . . The night I killed that man” (p. 463). How does Henry’s reaction compare to that of the others involved in the murder(s)? Do you believe he feels remorse for what he has done?8. Discuss the significance of the scene in which Henry wipes his muddy hand across his shirt after throwing dirt onto Bunny’s coffin at the funeral (p. 395).9. List some of the signs that foreshadowed the dark turn of events. Would you have seen all the signs that Richard initially misses? Or do you believe Richard knew all along and just refused to see the truth?10. Would you have stuck by the group after learning their dark secret?11. The author states that many people didn’t sympathize with Richard. Did you find him a sympathetic character?12. What do you make of Richard’s unrequited love for Camilla? Do you feel that she loved him in return? Or did she use his love for her as a tool to manipulate him?13. Do you feel the others used Richard as a pawn? If so, how?14. What do you feel is the significance of Julian’s toast “Live forever” (p. 86)?15. The author mentions a quote supposedly made by George Orwell regarding Julian: “Upon meeting Julian Morrow, one has the impression that he is a man of extraordinary sympathy and warmth. But what you call his ‘Asiatic Serenity’ is, I think, a mask for great coldness” (p. 480). What is your opinion of Julian?16. Do you think that Julian feels he is somewhat responsible for the murder of Bunny? Is that why he doesn’t turn the group in when he discovers the truth from Bunny’s letter?17. What causes Julian to flee? Is it because of disappointment in his young protegees or in himself?18. While the inner circle of characters (Richard, Charles, Camilla, Henry, Francis, and the ill-fated Bunny) are the center of this tale, those on the periphery are equally important in their own ways (Judy Poovey, Cloke Rayburn, Marion, and so on). Discuss the roles of these characters.19. The rights for The Secret History were initially purchased by director/producer/screenwriter Alan J. Paluka (All The President’sMen, The Pelican Brief), and they are currently with director Scott Hicks (Shine, Snow Falling on Cedars). What are your feelings about making the novel into a movie? Who would play the main characters if you were to cast it?20. What is the meaning of Richard’s final dream?

Editorial Reviews

“The Secret History succeeds magnificently. . . . A remarkably powerful novel [and] a ferociously well-paced entertainment. . . . Forceful, cerebral, and impeccably controlled.” --The New York Times“An accomplished psychological thriller. . . . Absolutely chilling. . . . Tartt has a stunning command of the lyrical.” --The Village Voice“Beautifully written, suspenseful from start to finish.” --Vogue“A haunting, compelling, and brilliant piece of fiction. . . . Packed with literary allusion and told with a sophistication and texture that owes much more to the nineteenth century than to the twentieth.” --The Times (London)“Her writing bewitches us. . . . The Secret History is a wonderfully beguiling book, a journey backward to the fierce and heady friendships of our school days, when all of us believed in our power to conjure up divinity and to be forgiven any sin.” --The Philadephia Inquirer“Enthralling. . . . A remarkably powerful novel [and] a ferociously wll-paced entertainment. . . . Forceful, cerebral, and impeccably controlled.” --The New York Times Book Review“A huge, mesmerizing, galloping read, pleasurably devoured. . . . .Gorgeously written, relentlessly erudite.” –Vanity Fair