How Pretentious is Too Pretentious? The Secret History Says It’s a Lifestyle

Elizaveta Glushak ('23)

Donna Tartt’s debut novel The Secret History by Donna Tartt, published in 1992, is considered to be one of the most influential and popular pieces of modern psychological fiction, having sold over 5 million copies since its release. Since my initial read on a family trip, I have endeavored to practically coerce my friends and family into giving it a read and hopefully share the same excitement and enthusiasm I felt after completing the five hundred and forty-four pages within three days. To me, however, what stood out especially was the sheer pretentiousness of the main characters and the fatal flaws of their personalities that happened to make them so unexpectedly dear to me. That is what made this novel special, different from anything I have read before. 

The Secret History is set in 1980’s Vermont and is a unique dive into the lives of a wealthy group of college students studying Ancient Greek under the mentorship of their charismatic professor Julian. We watch them indulge in everything from bacchanals and drugs to sex and murder. The narrator, Richard Papen, enters the college under a scholarship and struggles with money throughout most of the book - however, his desire to fit in with the five other students in his class and share their picturesque life leaves him often hiding his economic status for a substantial part of the novel. It is worth mentioning that he is a highly unreliable narrator, which leaves a lot of the occurrences in the plot up for the reader’s personal interpretation. The plot begins to unravel as the Greek students practically isolate themselves from the rest of the college and form into what some may think is similar to a cult. They repudiate societal norms, rules, and morals and live by those extracted from Ancient Greek texts, performing a bacchanal that surrounded the god Dionysus and the rejection of the human rationale. This bacchanal is the beginning of their psychological confusion of the world they live in and their personal values and guilt: during the ritual, they accidentally murder a man, and their reaction to this is perhaps not what one expects. It’s where the reader puts the book down and stares into the wall, mouthing: “Are they… good?” From that point on, substance abuse and deterioration of the characters' sanity in ways more than one is what makes them so complex and so ultimately engrossing.

Now, onto their pretentiousness, onto really tearing apart their so-called “dark academia” characteristics. To start off, they fully disregard the university experience that their peers receive: the different professors and experimentation with subjects, the college parties, the casual going out. In the starting chapters of the book, Edmund “Bunny” Concoran, one of the main characters, takes out Richard Papen for a casual lunch, telling Richard that it is his treat. They order the most obnoxious, lavish meals and drinks, which Bunny ends up unable to pay for, and has to ask his friend Henry Winter to lend him the measly few hundred dollars. Henry is kind to pay, but we are left questioning whether it would have really been disastrous going to a regular diner. In terms of Henry Winter, he is a personal favorite of mine, and also perhaps the most pretentious character in the history of characters. He spends his free time translating Ancient Greek works and judges those who don’t understand Plato or Homer very heavily. This excerpt from the book summarizes him most accurately: “‘You're a Homeric scholar?’ I might have said yes, but I had the feeling he'd be glad to catch me in a mistake and he would be able to do it easily. ‘I like Homer’ I said weakly. He regarded me with a chill distaste. ‘I love Homer’ He said.” Both Ancient Greek and Latin texts play a chief role in the characterization of Tartt’s main characters, as their obsession with the Ancient world not only inspire them to take upon ancient philosophies and traditions but also to segregate themselves from other and leave no desire in their hearts to open up to communities that aren’t their own. Henry can be seen as difficult, and each member of their clique has troubles with understanding him or getting close to him; by the time one completes the reading of the novel, the question of whether he is a pretentious university student or just a legitimate psychopath is unavoidable. The simple excerpt of Henry judging Richard upon his lack of passion regarding Homer’s work is only a single step towards seeing his obsession with the ancient schools of thought, things that make him and his friends do the unimaginable, which suggests his pretentiousness is not only comedic, but deeply psychological. When the reader begins the novel, he might have mixed feelings about such characters who seem to view everyone as partially inferior, however their individual experiences, history and hidden emotions that are slowly elucidated make them unforgettable, they feel like real people.

The Secret History is not just a story of 6 young adults committing a seemingly casual murder, it’s a highly engaging novel focusing on errors of human psychology and how modern morals are completely different from those of Ancient Greece. The characters are complex and unique, and readers have continued to be captivated by their ostentatious, yet thought-provoking dialogue. The feeling of guilt, loneliness, and finding what’s true in life are leading themes of the novel, and Tartt makes it close to impossible to shut the book until you have completed all of the pages. To experience the depth of this love-hate relationship I personally developed with the characters, this book should be on everyone’s list. 

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