I encountered Donna Tartt’s The Secret History the summer after my first year of college, as part of a grab bag of used but new-to-me books (along with poetry by Dickinson and Glück and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose) passed on to me by an alumnus of my school who had enrolled as an English major a decade before I had. Now over twenty years after its publication, and with Tartt’s widely anticipated new novel The Goldfinch on the way, The Secret History still endures, and, in light of all the recent discussions about the liberal arts and its students, it may be worth revisiting why.
Though I had not taken classes with secretive Aristotelian professors, partook of drinking binges and bacchanals, made friends with twenty-year olds who were fluent in ancient Greek, or, significantly, murdered a friend, the book (what to classify it as? A reverse murder mystery, a literary novel, a college story, a coming of age story) struck a chord in me. At first I pinned it down to the plot, but there was something more compelling to it than that — and specifically, something compelling to readers, like me, who identified with Tartt’s characters: introspective and book-loving students of the liberal arts.
For the protagonists of Tartt’s novel were just that: students who liked to write and read and think, dreamy and bookish, studying for a degree in Classics. Richard, Henry, Camilla, Francis, and the rest were not pre-professionals, or enrolling in classes with an eye to generating career skills; rather, they were students who devoted themselves to an intense teacher and an intense study of ancient texts and ideas, and who looked to those studies for answers to questions in their own personal lives. They were, in short, liberal arts students, precisely of the breed that is lamented as being increasingly endangered.
The appeal of the story to a certain type of crowd (“students of an intellectual bent,” the alumnus said, while my ego purred) goes beyond the intrigue. If The Secret History were a simple murder mystery, the narrative could have ended at Bunny’s death. But it didn’t, because, more than being a story about murder, the novel is about wanting to change, but failing. And it is precisely this failed transformation that makes the book relatable.
Richard, the novel’s narrator, first describes the five students in the elite Classics class as isolated, aloof, with “a strange cold breath of the ancient world,” strange but arresting — and ultimately, when given the option to join this crew, he takes it, hoping to cultivate the same aura himself. Once in, he and these other otherworldly students study (and oh, studying so picturesquely!) under their irresistible, charismatic teacher, who on Richard’s first day asks them to “leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime,” before leading them in a whirlwind discussion on divine madness in the cozy style of a Socratic seminar.
Richard had escaped the dust and destitution of Plano by coming to Hampden, wanting to get as far away from himself as possible, and from the first had been mesmerized by the mystery of the Classics group. Crucially, he believes that the aura of Julian Morrow’s students is one he can achieve by studying what they studied. And once in with them, he comments, “I felt myself trembling on the brink of a fabulous discovery, as though any morning it was all going to come together…I was going to sit up in a bed like a thunderbolt and say oh! oh! oh!”
Such is the seductive appeal of the liberal arts. We are told that being a true student of the liberal arts means to have cultivated a love of learning and a set of broadly applicable skills in critical thinking, writing, reading, constant questioning, and interpersonal empathy. We are told that such students are in search of truth, looking for guidance in their studies on how to live the good life and cultivate their souls. We are told the liberal arts are a way of experiencing life; we are told the schools and institutions that teach the humanities to students — at least, in the ideal education — are not merely teaching texts but fostering great citizens and empathetic human beings. From these descriptions, the liberal arts seem like a kind of magic medicine that will make you smarter, cooler, better. One certainly might hope, and many do, that the liberal arts would make everything, like Richard said, suddenly come together.
At the time the college alumnus gave me the book bag, I was fresh from a year when I’d read for the first time in my life ancient philosophers and meditations on the nature of man. Impressed by the confidence and air of intelligence my professors and this college alumnus shared, I thought that I had gotten my foot into the door of the right club, the club that would set me apart from the common masses and propel me into a higher class: intellectual. Basically, my professors and the alumnus represented the same elitism that appealed to Richard and beckoned him to join the Classics. It was the wink-wink-nudge-nudge, you get me, we’re both literary, we appreciate this kind of thing, the secret handshake and tip of the hat: follow us, we know what to do, we’ll make you into an intellectual. In short, I, like Richard, thought I could leave everything boring and nasty about me behind, and was on the brink of transforming into a completely new and better person. Who among us hasn’t wanted that?
The character that to me is the most striking, out of everyone, in The Secret History, is that of Henry Winter. (Even Camilla and Charles, with their incestuous relationship lifted straight from Greek tragedy, can’t compare). Henry, the rigid, imposing scholar, who makes puns in Greek more fluently than he can in English and greets his beloved teacher on the phone with “Khairei!” was, out of the six, certainly the most devoted scholar. After all, it was he who attempted to simulate divine madness and who successfully held a bacchanal.
The believability of the fiction aside, one has to admire Henry’s passion. But in this case, it is Henry’s passion that leads to not only his fall, but also the breaking of the magic circle that they had been living in.
The bacchanal leads to a dead body, which leads to blackmail, which leads Henry to organize Bunny’s death. All of these events, in narrative, happen breathlessly; under the light of objective reality, they do, of course, seem utterly ludicrous. And yet the extremity of the tale does not lessen the takeaway.
Henry had seen the most concretely out of the group the possibility of a completely new self. He admits to Richard that his life had been stale, dead, and colorless, and that the entire appeal of the bacchanal was to “lose one’s self, lose it utterly.” The night it happened, he was able to do what he always wanted: to live without thinking.
The similarities between Richard and Henry are obvious. Like Richard, Henry had wanted to escape his old life. Like Richard, Henry was drawn to the study of the liberal arts to do so — but, seemingly, he found the key that Richard hadn’t. He might even have found it as a result of the studies he felt were so colorless. They were what enabled him to draw in the madness and kill the farmer. And as a result, he felt invincible, confident, in control; he had changed himself, become everything he wanted.
If the story stopped here, the moral lesson would be troubling. But Henry ultimately kills himself. Richard speculates on why: Julian had abandoned his students after hearing about the results of his teaching, and Henry, devastated, had needed to prove the worth of “those high cold principles which Julian had taught…Duty, piety, loyalty, sacrifice.” Though Henry, unlike Richard, had managed to forge a new self for a brief moment, it didn’t last. He could not escape from the realities of life so easily, and had to return to his old self. He was stuck. Then, bam, the gunshot.
What this tells us is that really, there is no magical transformation. It isn’t that books can’t change you. Of course they can, if you let them. With time and effort, they allow you to understand yourself and the world more deeply and better. But your self is not remade with a bang. There is no thunderbolt. Whether you like it or not, you are who you are. And it is the reality of this youthful illusion’s dissolution that gives The Secret History its tragic appeal.
Of course, one could point out that this book is fiction, that the characters are not real, and that most liberal arts students do not try to induce divine madness or push friends off cliffs. But that’s not the point. The novel depends on its strong characters, characters we can believe in and empathize with: Camilla liking novels, Francis gay, Bunny a spendthrift, Charles liking alcohol too much. In fact, at one point, late in the story, Richard comments that neither he nor his friends, despite their aura, were destined for a career in academia. They were just normal students, who were trying to learn how to live with all parts of themselves that they hoped to change. And when they stepped under Julian Morrow’s guidance, it seemed they might.
But by the end, Richard admits the failure: the magic teacher, turned out to be rather useless in light of a real crisis; two of their circle, dead; the rest of them, living rather aimless and unhappy lives. He became one of the elite circle, all right, but the elite circle turned out to be a rather ordinary one. He didn’t become a new person, unless as to assume a new identity of murderer. He did not leave his past self behind. At the end of the story, he states himself that he had remained what he always was: a bystander.
That doesn’t mean that he learned nothing. Quite the contrary.
His recourse was perhaps the most obvious one for a student taught to think, criticize, and observe. He analyzes the past, wonders at it, and teases out the motivations and forces leading down the chain of events. He tries to make sense of the chaos. He examines his life.
And then he does about the only thing that he, and all the line of questioners before him who have tried to find meaning out of living, can do: he writes down the entire story. And in so doing, his readers can escape their own lives, swept away briefly before coming jarringly back to their own bodies.