And so we come to the end of The secret history – but not until the end of our discussion! Next week we will meet at Zoom for our live event in May.
“But Constance,” you say, “what the April event with N.K. Jemisin? You didn’t land Donna Tartt herself? ‘
No I don’t have that, kind reader; Donna Tartt does not attend any events. But we do to have found someone we think is perfect for talking to the book.
Nicole Cliffe is a co-founder The toast, also known as the only good website on the web, except for Vox. She is currently a columnist for Slate, and she is also written for The Guardian and is a former judge of the Morning News’ Tournament of Books. She rated it The secret history for The Awl in 2012. I intend to be extremely hit by her.
We now have chapter 8 and the epilogue of The secret history to get through it, with all its incestuous revelations, heartbreaking posthumous letters and final murders. Let’s start.
At the end of The secret historyEverything is corrupt
Here, at the end of the book, those kids walking around a country house with quotes The Waste Land together seem so far away. But the problem is not that they were destroyed or damaged: it is that the state of innocence they seemed to live in never really existed.
Even when Richard thought nothing was wrong, for Bunny’s murder, for the farmer, for all that, this world was corrupt. The twins slept together and Charles hurt Camilla. Francis yearned for Charles and planted his life in private secrecy. And Henry and Richard – well.
“You don’t feel much emotion for other people, do you?” Henry asks Richard in this section and adds, “Neither do I.” Richard protests that he does feel emotions for other people, but Henry doesn’t believe him and I don’t know if I do either.
Richard is whole thing is one of the major ambiguities in The secret history. He starts out as our self-insert, this melancholic dreamer who grew up on the West Coast comes from a lower middle class and has a huge chip on his shoulder over it, trying to match all these New England snobs that fool him like he uses phrases like ‘totally weird’
But then Richard so quickly throws up his fate with murderers. And he spends so much of his time in a drugged haze, desperately trying to deny himself some things that seem very clear from this angle (that he’s in love with Francis, for example). Trying to dissect the motivation why he does what he does is nearly impossible, and Henry’s suggestion that he may just be a sociopath seems as plausible as any other.
In this last chapter, Henry finally turns into a completely sinister figure, someone even Richard is now more afraid of from than in front of. It helps that it seems like Henry was planning to capture Bunny’s murder of Richard when it came to that (remember that Henry wouldn’t let Richard share the same alibi the core four used?). But then let’s say things like: “For the most part, my life has been very old and colorless. Dead, I mean. … But then it changed. The night I killed that man ‘and’ Now I know I can do anything I want ‘are his discoveries after the aforementioned murder, and it becomes downright impossible for Richard to dismiss all this bloodshed as a series of intended accidents.
But what Henry eventually decides to do – what he presumably decides want to do – is to commit suicide. After saying he would like to have Charles’s whiskey-infused liability to disappear from the planet, and after Charles tries to kill him, Henry shoots himself with Charles’s gun.
Richard’s conclusion is that Henry’s suicide is his last tribute to Julian and to the heroic ideals of Julian’s Greek class: duty, piety, loyalty, sacrifice. But those are not ideals that Henry once seemed to be particularly interested in. What Henry wanted was to escape his own mind, lose himself in something bigger. And he seems to have finally concluded that he can lose himself in this charged and broken group. He committed suicide for them.
In this section I have collected separate thoughts and questions I have about chapter 8 and the epilogue of The secret history. You can use them as a guide for your own conversation in our comments section or in your own community. Or start with your own questions! Please mark your spoilers and be nice to each other.
- Francis mentions that he lost his sense of smell due to a sinus infection. Does Francis – a man ahead of his time in so many ways – have the rona?
- Do you think Henry really tried to trick Richard? Why?
- What do you think Henry whispered to Camilla just before he shot himself?
- Richard throws Henry one last Sherlock Holmes reference suggesting that he may not actually be dead, and then Richard sees Henry in that strange dream looking at pictures of churches. What do you think is going on there?
- Julian finds out about the murders in this section after receiving that heartbreaking final letter from Bunny. And when Richard sees Julian’s response, he mentally classifies Julian as no longer a “good parent” but as someone “ambiguous, a moral neutral, whose deceptive attributes hid a watchful, erratic, and heartless.” Does Richard Julian essentially turn into a Greek God about us?
- Speaking of Bunny’s letter, woof hurts. Do you think Bunny really believed the rest of the classics would kill him?
- Is Richard lowkey more upset about losing credits than all the murders?
- In the epilogue, Richard looks resentful in California, an alcoholic Charles in handcuffs to a married woman in Texas, Camilla who cares for an elderly aunt, and Francis suicidal and engaged to a woman he hates. What do you think of this ultimate fate? Do they seem good to you?
- Secret history F / M / K. There is a correct answer, and I will explain this further in the comments.