Book Club Questions: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last – inexorably – into evil.

My friend and I absolutely loved this book. And I mean LOVED this book. The only other books to which I could possibly compare it would be Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, which has the same focus on the limited scope of one person’s narration along with the general subjectivity of experience. These books also share the technicality of fitting within the murder mystery genre while being nothing like any other murder mystery ever written. I recommend The Secret History to absolutely everyone, but especially to those who like books about Classics, poorly planned murders, and terrible useless people (who deserve to go to jail, to be quite honest). And what, might you ask, is this book really about? In the words of horreurscopes: “it’s a cautionary tale about devoting yourself too much to The Aesthetic TM.”

Discussion questions below the cut!

Richard begins the first chapter by stating:

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. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.

The fatal flaw is a popular literary “theory” that we are taught early in our education but often cease to discuss by the time we have reached college-level literature courses—with the exception of ancient Greek literature where the fatal flaw (namely different shades of hubris) was a set literary convention for hero stories. Do you feel Richard’s “fatal flaw” simplifies him or illuminates him? How did this early admission shape your reading of the novel, if at all? Does this classical convention translate to the modern day? And, just for fun – do you yourself believe “the fatal flaw” exists outside of literature?

On that note, many ancient Greek storytelling conventions are present in this novel – announcing the end of the story during the prologue, scenes of dialogue separated by “chorus” sections, off-screen violence, unity of place (all action occurs in one location), and unity of action (all action centers around one main event, with no subplots). You can see other conventions in a PowerPoint here, including some that Tartt may not have included or included more subtly. How does Tartt translate these ancient conventions to a modern novel? Is she successful?

Compare the narrative construction of The Secret History with Hesiod’s Five Ages. Do you think it fits into that structure? Alternatively, consider the “circular mind” that Julian looks for in his Greek students. How does that idea apply to The Secret History’s plot structure?

How does time flow in this novel? Is it chronological? Fragmented? Blurred? Circular?

How does Donna Tartt construct suspense in a novel in which relatively little important happens that we didn’t already know about from Page 1?

When he first describes the Greek class and its members, Richard says:

I do not now nor did I ever have anything in common with any of them, nothing except a knowledge of Greek and the year of my life I spent in their company. And if love is a thing held in common, I suppose we had that in common, too, though I realize that might sound odd in light of the story I am about to tell.

What is the “love” he is describing here?

A drunk Dean of Admissions briefly describes Classics as “wars and homos”—a description which Richard characterizes as “a sententious and vulgar statement, certainly, but like many such gnomic vulgarities, it also contains a tiny splinter of truth.” Since we have been talking so much about Donna Tartt’s use of ancient Greek conventions, could that drunken description also be applied to this novel? Although there is frequently danger in such limiting depictions of entire fields of study, is there any benefit?

Is Richard an unreliable narrator? How does an unreliable narrator affect a story in terms of its suspense or mystery? Can you think of other mystery/suspense stories you have read with narrators like Richard?

How do you think Donna Tartt managed to write a likeable novel with unlikeable characters? What are some specific ways she avoided infuriating her readers with her characters’ behavior?

What genre is this novel?

Do you think this is a “realistic” murder mystery in a way that most crime novels are not?

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