The Secret History by Donna Tartt – an investigation into a novel about studying the humanities (and murder!)

Recently I read Tartt’s “The Secret History and was impressed by the handling of a bunch of pretentious teenagers studying Julian Morrow’s exclusive (and doubtless uppity) Greek Classics class. The Guardian well summarises the reasons that you should read this book right now, and so I will spend little time repeating the qualities of excellence that this novel clearly possesses. Read about them here instead. 

I came across these beautiful dreamcasts on Tumblr that capture the spirit of the novel

The book is most often read as a thriller, a suspense novel or perhaps as a modern bildungsroman, but I was interested in reading The Secret History as a campus novel that is not written by a teacher, but instead by a student. Unlike most student-led stories about universities, which document relationships, alcoholic beverages and social struggles (all of which are also in this book), The Secret History has students who are really interested in knowledge and teaching. This is surprisingly rare in books about universities, and the discussions about tragedy, love and beauty bring Classical ideas to life.

There are some great passing comments about the nature of the humanities and studying them – here are a few of my favourites:

“Hampden, in providing a well-rounded course of study in the Humanities, seeks not only to give students a rigorous background in the chosen field but insight into all the disciplines of Western art, civilization, and thought.”

“…in doing so, we hope to provide the individual not only with facts, but with the raw materials of wisdom.”

I believe that having a great diversity of teachers is harmful and confusing for a young mind, in the same way I believe that it is better to know one book intimately that a hundred superficially,” he said. “I know the modern world tends not to agree with me, but after all, Plato had only one teacher, and Alexander.”

The humanities professor: Julian is raised to the level of a God. Like Alexander, he is ideal. He is the archetypal teacher, placed on a pedestal of perfection throughout. However, he is a strange human being outside of the classroom. He ultimately abandons his students. 

“Upon meeting Julian Morrow, one has the impression that he is a man of extraordinary sympathy and warmth. But what you call his ‘Asiatic serenity’ is, I think, a mask for great coldness. The face one shows him he invariably reflects back at one, creating the illusion of warmth and depth when in fact he is brittle and shallow as a mirror.”


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