The Secret History Book Summary - The Secret History Book explained in key points
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The Secret History summary

Donna Tartt

A Novel

4.6 (18 ratings)
24 mins
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    The Secret History
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    The Classics class

    The Secret History begins with a murder. The narrator, Richard Papen, reveals that years ago, he was involved in the death of a man named Bunny – a murder made to look like a hiking accident.

    We don’t yet know who Bunny is, or why he was killed. But gradually, all will be revealed. 

    It began, Richard tells us, with the Classics class at Hampden College in Vermont.

    Richard is an ordinary young man from California. When he arrives at Hampden College, he finds himself drawn to the small, somewhat eccentric group of students who are studying Classics. 

    They seem unapproachable, which only makes them more intriguing. Richard wants to be part of the class – and part of the world they inhabit.

    This cliquey group consists of just five students.

    First, there’s Francis – an elegantly dressed boy from a wealthy Catholic family.

    Then there are Charles and Camilla – an ethereal-looking pair who Richard initially mistakes for boyfriend and girlfriend. They’re actually twins.

    Next, there’s Henry. He looks serious, even expressionless. He’s rumored to be a genius.

    And finally, there’s Bunny – a loud, cheerful boy who’s often joking around … and who we know will later end up dead.

    The class is taught by a charismatic professor, Julian. Although Julian is initially reluctant to admit another student, Richard manages to join the class.

    Julian’s lessons are captivating. In one particularly memorable Greek class, he leads a discussion on divine madness and the loss of the self. 

    These are ideas that fascinate us all, says Julian. There’s something terrifying yet beautiful about completely losing control – just like the worshippers of the wine god Dionysus in The Bacchae, the Greek tragedy by Euripides. 

    How wonderful, says Julian, to experience the ecstasy of pure being.

    The students are left spellbound. 


    Apart from the hints about Bunny’s murder – which we’ll come back to in a moment – The Secret History seems almost conventional to begin with.

    Here we have a classic coming-of-age story from the perspective of a fairly average young man, Richard. 

    He’s at an important stage of his life – starting college, forming his identity, finding his friends, and diving deeper into his interests. This is someone that most of us can probably relate to, even if we’ve never studied Greek.

    And we can understand Richard’s fascination. Julian is a gifted teacher whose Greek classes are stimulating and thought-provoking. 

    When class discussions involve ideas about ritual madness and experiencing total freedom through the loss of self, well, it’s no wonder Richard walks out the classroom feeling dizzy and exhilarated. Tartt shows us just how exciting Greek literature can be, opening up new worlds and possibilities.

    We also share Richard’s curiosity about his enigmatic new classmates. Like him, we want to know more about this strange, close-knit group, who dress eccentrically and seem to live separately from the rest of the college. 

    Who are these people? What are their relationships with one another? And what do they get up to outside of class?

    In particular, we’re focused on Bunny and his relations with the rest of the group. We know that he’ll later be murdered by the people who seem to be his friends – but when, exactly? And most importantly, why

    There are still a lot of unanswered questions. And for now, Tartt keeps us guessing.

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    What is The Secret History about?

    The Secret History (1992) is the gripping tale of a group of Classics students at a New England college who are involved in the murder of a classmate. The novel explores the complex relationships between the friends, and the impact the incident has on their lives.

    Who should read The Secret History?

    • People who enjoy psychological fiction
    • Fans of the “dark academia” genre
    • Anyone with an interest in Classics

    About the Author

    Donna Tartt is an award-winning American novelist whose works have been critical and commercial successes. Her other novels are The Little Friend and The Goldfinch

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