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The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Fictional story of friends at an upscale New England college and what happens when they accidentally commit a murder.

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There is no redemption to be found here...

  • Jun 28, 2010
To the moderate, modern sensibility, grief is experienced as a mild synthesis of opposites.  We bear up and keep a stiff upper lip.  Yet we're expected to lapse in this, to occasionally let symptoms of grief break through.  We have the 'social support network,' but other people do not directly, vocally share in our grief; we don't indulge in mass lamentation.  The terrible things that happen to us are seen as horrible, random accidents; but we're counseled to accept them.

This is not the grief of the Secret History.  In its expression of sadness there is a powerful quality of isolation, inevitability that tolls through the prose like some great church bell, grim and dolorous.  Even so, as Donne put it, "ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."  The whole of reality and society, even characters who don't have a clue or a name, even unknowing their lives and behavior are bent by the grief.  It infects reality, the whole of the text bends to reflect the grief ordained by the gods, the suffering meted out to the main characters.

We use the term 'poetic justice' to denote this smug, artificial modern plot device in which the 'villains' get their 'just deserts.'  This is a corruption.  We get it from the justice of the classical poets:  the blinding of Oedipus, Pentheus torn apart by his mother,  the people of Thebes scattered to war and slavery by the vengeance of Dionysus.  There is no morality here, only fate.  When suffering afflicts Henry, Francis, and the rest it isn't because their murder was 'wrong.'  It's simply because blood calls to blood, death begets death.

Fate demands satisfaction, whether we understand it or not.  There is no redemption to be found here, no mysterious divine beneficence.  No more than there was under the red sun, upon the sun-baked shores of Ilium when great Ajax fell, the whole of the armies of the Greeks cried out and howled their lamentation to the unforgiving skies in recognition and mourning of the will of Zeus aegis-bearer.  Just so with the plot of the book.

The modern reader applies these categories of 'good' and 'evil' to the book and tries to determine who feels regret or compassion and who doesn't, or who is most socialized.  It's in error, and they come to all sorts of incoherent, ridiculous conclusions because there's no morality to the Greek world, only law and chaos, piety and sacrifice, tragedy and fate, hubris and nemesis sparring across the pages of the text.

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July 04, 2010
Great review, V. Thanks so much for sharing!
More The Secret History by Donna Ta... reviews
review by . June 17, 2010
The story begins with the main character, Richard, who is trying to find a way out of his "miserable" (re: middle class) life in California. He applies to a private college in Vermont and is accepted. Once there, he decides to major in Greek and meets the other characters in the story--Henry, Francis, Camilla, Charles, and Bunny. These characters are all from wealthy families and, out of boredom, attempt to recreate ancient Greek rituals. They actually succeed at one point, but during …
review by . July 11, 2010
Compulsively readable
I’ve read this book probably half a dozen times since I first picked it up in as an undergraduate. It’s so thoroughly addictive, for a number of reasons. First, Tartt accomplishes the difficult feat of writing an intellectual novel that is obsessively detail-oriented and yet is an incredibly well-paced mystery. You learn about a murder on the first page, and then the whole novel unravels for you how it happened, with liberal doses of ancient Greek literary and philosophical references …
Quick Tip by . July 01, 2010
Fascinating look at an offbeat topic. It will keep you turning pages until the end.
Quick Tip by . June 21, 2010
LONG LONG LONG. But interesting characters.
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V ()
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Member Since: Jun 22, 2010
Last Login: Jul 17, 2010 04:15 PM UTC
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