The Secret History by Donna Tartt is a murder mystery told backwards. Set in a small liberal arts college in Vermont, the novel follows a group of Classics students through the eyes of a newcomer, Richard, who watches and eventually partakes in their descent into murder. Now viewed as the founding text of the “dark academia” aesthetic, popularized by apps like Tumblr and TikTok, Tartt’s 1992 novel is regaining fame with a younger audience.
Throughout the book, each of the main characters are shown in three distinct lights: idolization, stress, and recovery. When Richard first moves to Vermont, he watches the group from afar, and romanticizes their lives, especially when he realizes just how wealthy they all are. He is particularly taken with Henry, the de facto leader of the group, a tall, broad student who is incredibly smart and stoic. He develops feelings for Camilla, the one woman, and deep friendships with Charles, her twin, and Francis, a more practical character. He even tolerates Bunny, the jokester, after he forces Richard to pay for an expensive dinner. However, once he joins the group in their Greek class, he discovers the tense relationships between them. While conspiring to kill Bunny, and covering up his murder after the deed is done, Richard witnesses how cold-hearted these students can be. Henry doesn’t bat an eye at killing his once best friend; Charles and Camilla grow cold and silent, and Francis relies heavily on alcohol and drug use. During the group’s recovery, including attending Bunny’s funeral, Richard watches Henry and Francis grow increasingly manic, and, most disturbingly, Charles become an alcoholic, consistently raping his twin sister Camilla. The novel ends when Henry is killed by the police to keep the group’s secret, and Charles goes off the grid, leaving Francis, Camilla, and Richard the sole members to keep in touch. Francis attempts suicide, but finds comfort in reconnecting with his friends during his recovery in the hospital.
So why is this macabre tale so romanticized, especially among such a young demographic? Two words: dark academia. Characterized by dark earthy colors, heavy black and brown clothing, college architecture, and anything that fits into the idea of “suffering artist”, this aesthetic has gained lots of popularity among Generation Z, with edits, fashion inspiration, and music pieces being shared across all kinds of social media. The Secret History fits this aesthetic perfectly, with its setting on a small liberal arts college campus and its romantically tragic plot. Still, the book and the subculture are not without flaws; both have been accused of being elitist, eurocentric, and white dominated. Tartt includes no characters of color in the book, nor ever addresses the lack of diversity. The dark academia subculture also mainly focuses on European philosophy, literature, and art, instead of including substance from all cultures.
Overall, The Secret History by Donna Tartt is a fascinating read. While occasionally pretentious, its inaccessibility is covered well by the dynamic writing and plot.