A Longing for the Picturesque3 min read

di Zoe Patricelli Malizia

“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.”
This is the first sentence of the captivating novel by Donna Tartt, The Secret History, which portrays the life of Richard Papen after he moves from the suffocating town of Plano, California, to study at an elite college in Hampden, Vermont. Immediately, his interest is piqued by a small, bizarre group of students studying Classics, formed by Charles and Camilla Macaulay, Francis Abernathy, Henry Winter, and Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran. Richard does everything in his power to join the seemingly isolated world they live in. Despite the reluctance to admit another student to the class, the professor, Julian Morrow, finally accepts Richard into the tightly-knit group.All the students, save Bunny and Richard, are so fascinated by Greek culture and history that they decide to perform a bacchanal, a ritual inspired by the Greek god Dionysus, in which the participants apparently “lose control completely.” This ritual has a disastrous outcome. The four students, in this altered mental state, kill a farmer.
Shortly after, Bunny finds out about the homicide and continuously torments the others, blackmailing them to borrow money. This causes their tight friendship to unravel, hurling them into a spiral of lies, murder, and paranoia.
It took me a year to convince myself to start the book and two days to finish it. Each chapter is so well written it leaves you eager to discover what will happen to the flawed group of friends. One thing, in particular, that stuck with me after finishing the novel was its compelling themes.
A recurring one that is found throughout the whole book is the danger of isolation. The students of Hampden College are already isolated as is, but the group of friends is even more solitary, rarely socializing with people outside the Greek class. This leads them to develop warped views of reality and what is socially acceptable and what is not. Even after killing the farmer, they are so absorbed in their world that they feel no guilt and only care about how it might negatively affect their future. Bunny, even if perceived as annoying or stubborn, is the only one with friends outside of the group and, therefore, is the only one who understands the gravity of the crimes his “friends” committed.
This leads to another frequent theme in the novel: their inability to see flaws. The Greek class, including Julian, only sees the superficial beauty of things and over-romanticizes their lives as if it were a reenactment of a Greek play. Even Richard, in the first chapter, admits that his fatal flaw is the longing for the picturesque, implying that he is an unreliable narrator, lying about parts of the story or defending even the most manipulative characters, such as Henry, who is portrayed as a hero throughout the whole book. Another character who strives for perfection is Julian. When he finds out the students are the ones who killed Bunny, he isn’t mad. He is only disappointed because it distorted the flawless vision he had of his class.
I might be biased since The Secret History is my favorite book, but I cannot recommend it enough to people who love a good psychological novel with a dark twist.

Edited by Alfred A. Knopf, Random House Inc., New York,  1992.

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