Image credit: Holly Cornall
Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is one of the latest books to be recommended to the masses on BookTok, the literature concerned side of TikTok. It is not marketed on this app, however, as the satirical commentary on elitism that it is, but as a book containing a, “dark academia aesthetic,” that you might like to read in autumn. The videos on TikTok promoting this book largely consist of montages of dusty libraries, pure white Greek statues, and the occasional skull to show just how dark and academic the novel is. They are usually accompanied with the opening to Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game, which plays as Tartt narrates the memorable opening line in her twangy Mississippian accent: ‘The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.’ Typically, I am not a fan of BookTok recommendations, but learning that Tartt is a contemporary of Brett Easton Ellis (American Psycho) eased my concerns that The Secret History might be a novel of pretensions and not much else. I decided to read it.
The Secret History follows the ever-unreliable perspective of Richard, outsider to an enigmatic group of five Classics students: Henry, Bunny, Francis, and twins Charles and Camilla. As he becomes enveloped in the group, secrets and murders unfold and very quickly, Richard finds himself too deep in the scheme to escape. Tartt artfully orchestrates her plot with meaningful allegories and allusions to ancient Greek mythologies and writers. Themes of the beauty and temporality of life and the pain of tragedy intersect to construct both overwhelming guilt and unflinching ambivalence in the characters. In response to the events of the novel, many of the main characters bury their guilt in various addictions, while Henry coldly equates murder to a, “redistribution of matter.”
Despite the many adorations and odes to ancient Greek literature, The Secret History is far from a celebration of pretension. We envy the characters for their extensive knowledge, wealth, and charm, but they are not exempt from hamartia, the very same fatal flaw they discuss in their studies. Richard contemplates this truth himself, asking, ‘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.’
Tartt’s characters are wealthy and lazy; critiques of elitism hover in the background as Richard, who has had to work a job all year round to afford his studies, narrates the extravagance of his peers. At their most dismissive of Richard’s monetary situation, Francis, who is closeted, laments that his grandfather is forcing him to marry a woman, threatening to cut him off. Richard asks Francis if there’s any way he can get by on his own, to which Francis is adamant that he can’t. When Richard points out that he has managed to get by without any money from his family, Francis is blasé, simply saying, ‘ “But you’re used to it.” ’ The Secret History does not glorify the aesthetic of wealth – Tartt is very clear in her intentions of satirising the affluent. She does not allow much sympathy for the struggles of rich people, instead exposing the ridiculous nature of their attitudes to the world around them.
The Secret History is not all serious – Tartt excels in humour, effortlessly blending the ancient Greek binaries of comedy and tragedy. The cluelessness of her characters to anything in the real world is ridiculously funny, especially with Richard’s narration, both confused and concerned for his peers and their ineptitude. In one instance, Henry is shocked to learn about the moon landing, which had occurred over ten years prior to the events in the novel, certainly during these character’s lifetimes. It is a discovery so ludicrous, you are left with no option but to laugh.
If you want to read a book with a “dark academia aesthetic” then I suppose I would recommend The Secret History; the setting and the affectations of Tartt’s characters lend themselves well to that sort of theme. However, it should be known that this book has far more substance than that. Every page is rich with philosophical contemplations, societal critiques, beautiful contradictions, and I can’t get enough of it.
Edited by Holly Cornall, Literature Editor