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Home Middelbare School EN Uittreksels Uittreksel Donna Tartt – The Secret History

Uittreksel Donna Tartt – The Secret History

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Extracts English Literature
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Donna Tartt – The Secret History

Knopf, New York (1992)


In The Secret History the main character describes a story that has occurred in the past, and should have remained a secret: the secret history.


Donna Tartt was born in 1963 in Greenwood, Mississipi, but grew up in Grenada, Mississippi. Donna is the elder of two daughters born to Don and Taylor Tartt. Due to her own attitude towards press interviews, of which the title of her novel is a fair description, very little is known about her youth. She appears to have been a precocious child with an early love for literature. She wrote her first poem at the age of five and published her first sonnet in a Mississippi literary review at the age of thirteen.

In the autumn of 1981 Donna entered the University of Mississippi in Oxford. One of her stories caught the attention of Willie Morris. At his and others' urging Donna transferred to Bennington College, a small liberal arts college, after her fresman year. During her second year at Bennington she began writing her debut novel: The Secret History.

The manuscript for The Secret History started a bidding war between publishers. The winner, Knopf, paid a massive $ 450.000 for the manuscript and ordered 75.000 copies in the first print (compared to 10.000 for most debuts). The novel remained on the Publisher Weekly bestseller list for thirteen weeks, reaching as high as number two.

Other work by the author:

Sleepytown: A Southern Gothic Childhood, with Codeine

The literary period:

The second part of the Twentieth century.

The genre:

Psychological novel.


Richard Papen majors in Psychology at the University of Hampden, but decides to change to ancient Greek. This course is taught by the charismatic professor Julian Morrow, who normally hand picks his students and limits them to five. The current students convince Julian to accept Richard. The other students, Edmund Corcoran (Bunny), Camilla and Charles Macaulay, Francis Abernathy and Henry Winter, accept Richard as their friend. Together they spend a number of weekends at the house of Francis' aunt, not far from Hampden. Although they accept him, Richard feels that they're hiding something from him.

Around Christmas Richard notices that Henry, who is quite rich, is paying more and more for Edmund, who barely receives any money from his parents. By accident Richard discovers that Henry had tried to book 4 air tickets to Buenos Aires. Richard then tries to contact the five other students about the tickets, but Edmund is the only one he can reach. None of the others can explain their whereabouts. If Richard 'guesses' there must have been a murder which could explain their strange behaviour, Henry decides to let him in on their secrets.

Excited by lessons about Plato and Dionysus, the five students decide to recreate an ancient Greek bacchanal, a ritual. When their first attempt fails, they decide to try it again, this time purified after three days without eating. Edmund is caught eating and therefore excluded by the others. Their second attempt is succesful. During the ritual they accidentally kill a farmer. Edmund learns about the killing after translating and reading Henry's diary, and starts to blackmail the others. As Edmund's threats of revealing the secret increase, the others decide to kill him. Richard has to choose to support Edmund or to stay silent and join the others. Richard decides to join the others and suggests a way to murder Edmund. During his morning walk, they push Edmund into the ravine.

The five students are all suffering badly from their decision to kill Edmund, resulting in nightmares and tense relationships. Charles starts drinking and is fiercely opposed to his sister's love for Henry. His hatred towards Henry leads him to walking up to Henry with a gun. In the struggle Charles shoots Richard in the stomach. Eventually Henry shoots himself to keep the others out of trouble.

A few months after the killing Julian Morrow receives a letter from Edmund (it had been waiting with the secretary, whom he didn't visit often). In the letter Edmund not only describes what had happened, but also expresses his fears for the others and his life. Perplexed Julian leaves the university and vanishes.


Excluding the epilogue, the book describes a period of nearly one year: the school year from 1990 until 1991. The main character, Richard Papen, describes the proceedings in a chronological manner.


The secret history takes place at the fictional faculty of Literature and Languages at Hampden College, which is a small liberal arts college, like Bennington College in Vermont at which Donna studied. Hampden is situated in the northeast of the United States and equally far from Boston as from New York.

Characters and relationships:

Richard Papen:

Encouraged by the five current students he decides to join the ancient Greek course by professor Julian Morrow. He is quickly accepted by the other five, but feels they're hiding something. In the end he has to choose between Edmund and the other four.

Edmund Corcoran, Charles and Camilla Macauley, Francis Abernathy and Henry Winter:

The five other students in the ancient Greek class. All but Edmund are involved in killing a farmer. Edmund finds out by translating Henry's diary and threatens to disclose the secret. Together with Richard the other four students decide to kill Edmund.

Julian Morrow:

A slightly eccentric, enthousiastic professor, teaching ancient Greek to the five students. After being pursuaded by the other five he accepts Richard onto his course. Richard and the five students follow the course in ancient Greek, taught by Julian Morrow.




The battle between good and evil.



Linguistic usage:

The author uses dialogue, when Richard has company and monologues to describe Richard's thoughts. Although the sentences can be long, the use of modern language makes the book easy to read and understand.




First person; the story is told by Richard Papen.


The story is told in 660 pages.

Own opinion on the book:

Your opinion!

(1992, nonfiction), A Christmas Pageant (1993, short stories), A Garter Snake (1995, short stories)


Don't you get it? This very second you could be doing something you love and dream about doing. So do it! NOW!

Begrijp je het niet? Je zou nu iets kunnen doen waar je van houdt en waarvan je droomt om te doen. Dus doe het! NU!