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  • Donna Tartt

The Secret History - critical review: explored as a Greek Tragedy

Donna Tartt's 'The Secret History' follows a year of six classic student's lives at a New England College, starting the novel off with the declaration of a murder. When I read 'The Secret History' (1992) by Donna Tartt, what struck me most was its connection with the classical world. I wanted to explore this connection further, and so read Aristotle's 'Poetics' as well as Peter Burian's article 'Myth into muthos: the shaping of a tragic plot' to use as sources to judge the novel by, in terms of what classical tragedian conventions it used. Furthermore, I wanted to explore why Tartt connected her novel so much to that of a Greek Tragedy, and I read Francois Pauw's 'the classical intertext in Donna Tartt's The Secret History' to understand this further. Jean-Pierre Vernant's definition of tragedy: "the field of the problematical, the area where the familiar institutions are called into question and the moral vocabulary, no longer adequate, becomes ambiguous or self-contradictory" fits exactly into the novel and what it is portraying: it questions morality, youthful ignorance and hubris, the denial of modern reality and a dark side of intellectual endeavour. Moreover, the novel fits with the themes of a Greek Tragedy: the idea of conflict, sacrifice, retribution, knowledge, fate as well as the characteristics: hamartia, narration, language, unity. It also has a direct reference to a Greek tragedy since much of its plot is based on Euripides' Bacchae: which is centred, as is The Secret History, around the God Dionysus: The God of wine, disguise, and ritual madness. Therefore, not only does The Secret History's structure, plot and characters seem to resemble that of a Greek Tragedy, but through doing this, it encapsulates the characters' 'hamartia', or fatal flaw, which leads to their downfall.

Aristotle claimed that the moral and phycological framework of a Greek Tragedy is 'Hamartia', or fatal flaw of the character, which is what leads them to their downfall. In the first sentence of chapter one, Richard, our narrator, asks 'Does such a thing 'as the fatal flaw', that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature?' and then answers '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.' This mention of the hamartia at the beginning of the novel shows its centrality to both the plot and morality of it, as the novel as a whole seems to be a portrayal of the significance of human flaws in individuals' fate. This idea that Richard's fatal flaw is the 'longing for the picturesque at all costs' echoes the hamartia of all six students: the desperation to see the world as it is not. This can be seen through their obsession with the classical world, shown through the constant comparisons or references to Greek figures, ideologies or literary, displaying that it becomes for them a form of how they want the world to be. The comparatives they make of modern reality to classical world references remain consistently present throughout the novel. For example, Julian's profile is described to compare with "an Etruscan in a bas-relief", Francis' country property is described as a "mock tholos" and the feeling of wet grass ignites images of Olympus or Valhalla for Richard. This constant use of metaphors and similes to describe people, objects and nature show their vision as thwarted with the classical world: as their reality is always influenced their aim to see their world as something else. This interest in the classical world connects with their denial of modern reality. This is seen literally through Henry's lack of knowledge of a man landing on the moon, but also symbolically through their classroom: the fact it is geographically and personally cut off from the rest of the students (Julian, their professor, "conducts the selection on a personal rather than academic basis") and described as "the Lyceum" and a "platonic microcosm of what he thought a classroom should be" shows this disconnection with the real world. Furthermore, the use of the Greek or Latin in their speech in public or in front of other students at university in order to be secretive could be interpreted as another portrayal of their attempt to cut themselves out of the modern world and live in one that they feel is superior. This consistent use of comparatives not only shows that it influences how they see the world, but it could be interpreted it explains how they act in the world: making it a flaw, instead of merely a characteristic. They justify themselves and their actions through their version of the world's morality, instead of the standards that everyone else lives by. When Henry dismissively mentions the idea of being arrested for the murder of Bunny, he claims "Frankly I do not see how well either the taxpayers' interest or my own would be served by my spending sixty or seventy years in Vermont Jail" and when referencing the murder of the farmer during their Dionysian experiment, he claims, "I mean, this man was not Voltaire we killed." Through referencing his and the taxpayers' "interests" as well as labelling the victim as "not Voltaire", we see this complete denial, or lack of awareness, of justice, which could be interpreted as being a result of their tainted vision of reality: in which their intellectual obsession with the classical world becomes how they see their reality and how they act within that.

The idea of the audience knowing the fate of the characters is central to Greek Tragedy and Epic: like that of the Iliad in which the readers know the end of the plotline, but the suspense is created in questioning how and why one gets there. This is echoed in 'The Secret History', as the victim and murderers of the case are given in the prologue in the novel, meaning the central question is not 'who done it?' but 'why?'. It has been interpreted that the novel in itself comments on divine fate and that all the characters provide a study for what happens when a person attempts to escape their fate. Contrastingly, it has been argued that the novel is a tale of characters as a victim of chance. This idea could be supported through the characters reasoning for being in the Greek Class: in which Richard chose it in order to sleep later on Monday's, Henry's interest resulted from a childhood car accident when he was confined to bed for a long period of time, and for Bunny it is an attempted solution of therapy for his dyslexia, and that the ending was, in fact, a "horrible string of coincidences.". However, I think it is more convincing to portray that all the characters acts and consequences are brought about by human agency, and instead, chance or fate has little to do with it, apart from it being sources for what the characters want to believe their situation can be explained by. This can be seen through Henry's planning of Bunny's murder, in which he is "allowing Bunny to choose the circumstances of his own death", compares the plan to a "chess game" and when Bunny walks past them waiting for him, Henry exclaims to him that "it's very lucky" that he walked past them. This is what Henry wants to believe, that both Bunny himself and luck were equal partners of causality in his death. This is contrasted by the description of the murder, in which it is portrayed that the woods were "deathly still" and "silent", and that "there was no wind; not a bird sang, not a leaf stirred." This is contrasted by the description of Henry who "took a step towards him [Bunny]." The absence of the involvement of nature: as it was "silent, not a sound" and motionless: "still" "no wind" "not [..] stirred", juxtaposed with the active verbs of Henry stepping, along with the passivity of Bunny as Henry steps "towards him", could be interpreted as confirming this idea that there was nothing but the human agency that brought them to this result: no luck, chance, or the natural world intervening. Therefore, through looking at the language of the narrative of the death compared to Henry's dismissive planning of it, it further echoes their denial of reality. The fact the readers know the fate of the victim, similarly to Greek Tragedies, means the suspense is built up through understanding the phycology of these characters in order to explain what led them to this action.

The novel's structural similarities such as the units of time, place and action and unity between 'episodes' further create the novel to directly echo that of a Greek tragedy. In 'Poetics', Aristotle portrays that tragedies are not histories which show all the happenings of a single person or event, but instead, they are the narrative of a part of it, therefore the poet "should be concerned with a unified action, whole and complete, possessing a beginning, middle parts and an end". He interestingly uses the example of The Iliad and The Odyssey, in which they are both narratives of "one part" of something much bigger: for the Iliad: the Trojan War, and for the Odyssey: the life of Odysseus. This structural technique is adopted in The Secret History, in which the novel is based around one academic year at the college, and within that has a beginning, middle parts and end surrounding the unified action of the murder of Bunny. Furthermore, Aristotle advocates the importance of the events in tragedies as needing to be necessarily what would happen theoretically: it should be "the kind of thing that would happen, i.e. what is possible in accordance with probability" meaning there is a connection between events. Tartt achieves this, in the way that the events that occur are probable due to the character's fatal flaw of excessive elitism leading to their dismissal of the modern world, which in turn leads to their actions.

Another aspect that Tartt shares with Greek tragedies is the emphasis on both knowledge and language. Aristotle in 'Poetics' displays that tragedy can involve moments of recognition, in which characters change from ignorance to knowledge. This idea surrounds the plot of the novel, in which the threat of the 'recognition' of society drives their action of murder, and haunts them afterwards. Furthermore, the reader itself is a vehicle for recognition, in which they are moved from ignorance to knowledge on the answer to why they committed the crime as the novel progresses. Through this recognition comes the importance of language and words. The importance of language is consistent in Greek tragedies, not only due to the necessary constraints of a stage, meaning the action is often not shown but often told to the audience through verbal interaction, but the issues of tragedy on moral, political, philosophical and theological issues are all created through verbal interactions and exclaims of characters, meaning knowledge is directly connected to language. This is used in The Secret History, in which the ignorance of society to the student's crime is dependent on Bunny's verbal act of merely telling someone about what they did. Furthermore, the idea of the readers experiencing the action of the plot through verbal interaction is used in the novel, in which the Dionysian experiment is narrated not directly to the reader, but through Richard's conversation with Camilla and Henry in which they narrate it, and the murder of Bunny is told retrospectively through Richard. This creates this emphasis on language as the accuracy of the situation is dependent on the honesty of the narrators. Therefore, this emphasis on knowledge is shown through that the importance of language: as that is the source for displaying or hiding knowledge. Since humans are the source of both knowledge and language, it could be suggested that this emphasis on them further displays the fact that it was human autonomy, and with that their fatal flaw, that is the complete cause of their downfall.

With this idea comes the narrative style of the novel, which also is linked to that of a tragedy. A tragedy lacks a single authoritative and moral voice, meaning that they are filled with 'multiple voices' which exclaim their own ideologies and justifications to matters such as morality, politics and theology. In the same way, The Secret History lacks an authoritative omniscient narrator, as, through the first-person narration, the accuracy of the narration is necessarily undermined: and the readers lack a just and moral framework to judge the other characters by. However, since Richard is 'the outsider' of the group, it has been interpreted that his first-person narration echoes the Greek chorus, a neutral source of narrative for the audience: as he is a witness of the events, not truly involved in the action. However, it may be more convincing to argue that instead, his narrative voice creates this further idea of unreliability to the narration. We know, from the beginning of the novel, that his flaw is his "morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs" and he acknowledges himself that he has an "inability to see anyone, or anything, in its true light." Therefore, not only is the plot a chain of causality that started with the character's hamartia, but the narrative itself is too. Richard's inability to see anything in its "true light" echoes the seemingly collective hamartia of the group: the inability to see the world in it's "true light" but instead through their own thwarted classical lens. Therefore, as readers, this lack of an authoritative voice is prevalent and significant, as Richard is merely another 'point of view' in terms of the views of morality and justice in the novel, and the way the story is told becomes part of the plot itself: being a result of, what could be interpreted, the center of the novel: the fatal flaw.

Moreover, this idea of undermining characters goes against one of Aristotle's characteristics of a tragedy that he portrays in his 'Poetics', as he claims that it is "an imitation of people better than we are." This statement, at first glance, does not fit with the characters of The Secret History. However, from their constant comparatives to the classics, to their often reference to fiction itself, it could be suggested that the characters almost want their story to be a version of a Greek Tragedy, and for them, in this, they represent the 'better' people compared to the contemporary audience. This idea could be supported by the quotation "monstrous as it was, the corpse itself seemed little more than a prop, something brought out in the dark by stagehands and laid at Henry's feet, to be discovered when the lights came up", along with the description of Bunny as "an old familiar jokester cast […] in the tragic role" and that Henry, when referencing his interaction with the FBI, "had waited in the wings a long while" so "he could step onto the stage and assume the role he'd written for himself." This theatrical lexis: "prop", "stagehands", "tragic role", "wings" further creates this idea of the character's refusing to see the world as it is: and in their idealized 'Greek Tragedy' version of reality, they believe they dominate 'better people' than their contemporaries. However, through looking at another of Aristotle's statements, the audience can understand the true nature of who envelopes the identity of the 'tragic hero' in the novel. Aristotle claims that the identity of the character who has the tragic fall cannot be "decent men" as this "does not evoke fear or pity, but disgust", neither can it be the "wicked person" as this is "agreeable." He concludes, therefore, that they must be "the person intermediate between this" who is "not outstanding in moral excellence or justice" and his tragic downfall is "not due to any moral defect or depravity but to an error of some kind." If we judge the characters of The Secret History through this definition, then we are left with Richard as the 'tragic hero' of the novel, as the other characters are mostly unamiable. Richard himself defines himself as fitting this categorization, as he claims that "I do not consider myself an evil person […] while I have never considered myself a very good person, neither can I bring myself to believe that I am a spectacularly bad one." Furthermore, his downfall remains consistent with Aristotle's definition, as it is due to an "error of some kind" instead of "moral depravity". Unlike the other characters, Richard's involvement in Bunny's murder is mainly passive, as his membership of the Greek class, knowledge of the happenings and location of being where Bunny's death occurs is by accident. Therefore, it could be argued that the character's desire to distort reality is further shown by the use of theatrical comparatives, emphasizing that they would aim for their story to be a Greek Tragedy: this would be an achievement for them, and by which they feel would encompass the "better people". However, for the reader's version of the tragedy, the characters are neither justified or "better" than contemporary society in the moral sense, but instead completely delusional to it. In the novel, therefore, the 'tragic hero', can be defined as our narrator, Richard, who we can feel both pity and fear for, as his "morbid longing for the picturesque" is the "error" that leads to his suffering.

To conclude, the novels consistent references to the classic world is a necessary part of the centrality of the novel: the student's ignorance at real reality, despite their intellectual talent, and with that, their determination to see the world as it is not, which can be labelled as the characters' 'fatal flaw', and reason for their ultimate downfall. The hostility of the characters vision of the world is shown at the beginning of the novel, prior to the prologue, in which a quote of Nietzsche is used, in which he asserts that '1. A young man cannot possibly know what Greeks and Romans are' and '2. He does not know whether he is suited for finding out about them.' Reading the novel through this quote, their flaw is not only fatal as it leads to malice actions which they feel are justified, but it is fatal because it is necessarily unachievable: they cannot fully understand the classical world and live through this vision and its standards as members of the modern world. The characters dismiss this idea and are determined to see the world through an alternate lens. This necessarily creates issues on illusions: their desire to be in the presence of the God Dionysus: "the master of Illusions" and consistently live in a world they are not, and knowledge: the danger of it is what leads them to feel justified in their actions. Therefore, this inability to achieve an alternate reality, simultaneously with the inability to address, live in and live through the standards of the modern world leaves them to be unable to live through any perspective at all.

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