The Secret History by Donna Tartt is that one novel that almost all Classicists are pretty much guaranteed to have read, primarily because those in which we are the central characters are few and far between. It tells the story of the small hand-picked group of Classicists at an exclusive college in Vermont through an outsider who gradually joins them. But this is a Classical novel in more ways than their choice of subject, and that is why so many Classicists love this book. The prologue sets the scene with a murder, albeit ambiguously, and the novel tells its story. Because we (think we) know the climax of the tale, it is with a crushing sense of inevitability that we watch events unfold.

The Secret History front cover

And that is why this is such a Classical novel, the theme that draws together the myriad Classical elements and threads in the story. The audience watch events unfold knowing they will end tragically and feeling there is nothing that can stop them. It is just like reading (or watching) a Greek tragedy. At one early point in the novel, our narrator asks “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 idea of a “fatal flaw” is misunderstood and misinterpreted to explain why events in tragedies unfold so horrifically and inevitably. But this is too simplistic. There is no fatal flaw that overrides choice and character and deliberation and all the ideas that tragedies explore. We watch events unfold that are a combination of choices and circumstances. The tragic ending is not inevitable. It is the choices of the characters that make it so. And that is the power of tragedies, now and in the Greek world. When we watch characters make bad choices and we see the horrific results that those bad choices, when combined with circumstances, and the gods, and questions of fate and destiny, and prophecy, and all of the other complicating elements, we reflect on the choices that we make.

When the narrator looks back on the situation, he can see moments where he could have made different choices; where they all could have made different choices. His tragedy, the Secret History of that group of Classicists was not inevitable after all. And that is an authentically Greek tragedy.

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The Secret History by Donna Tartt was her debut novel, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1992.
I would suggest it is suitable for those in Key Stage 4 (years 10 & 11) and above.

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