The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
“It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.” -Donna Tartt, “The Secret History”
“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt has become synonymous with dark academia. Dark academia became popular last year over TikTok as schools were moving online, and people shifted away from traditional educational methods. Dark academia is a romanticization for knowledge and education, but it’s specifically enamored with the lifestyles (or at least the perceived lifestyles of students at elite universities. Think shabby tenured professor chic or the mysteriously handsome and brooding student who reads Russian literature before lecture—that’s dark academia.
“The Secret History” has been hailed as the guidebook for the dark academia aesthetic and at first glance it’s easy to see why. Set at a tiny New England college, “The Secret History” is a reverse mystery thriller following Richard Papen, a new member of an elite group of students on campus that eventually murders one of their classmates. Richard—and by extension the reader—is drawn into this tantalizing world in the novel. “The Secret History” meets a lot of the criteria for dark academia. From the overall reverence of knowledge—specifically the study of arcane subjects such as the Classics and Greek—to the lush descriptions of the campus and the characters clothing that’s almost exclusively limited to fine suits and ties, “The Secret History” exudes the dark academia aesthetic.
Even though the aesthetics of the novel are extremely relevant, focusing only on them blinds people from the message of the book. The characters, though incredibly charming, are deeply flawed. For example, the leader of the group, Henry is asked “How can you possibly justify cold-blooded murder?” Henry coolly responds, “I prefer to think of it as redistribution of matter.”
These characters are not meant to be aspirational. They commit multiple murders and face practically no consequences from outside forces. The main characters of “The Secret History” are notably wealthy, white and—except for a singular token woman—male. The only destruction they face is what they bring upon themselves.
The main characters are so obsessed with achieving the classical ideals touted in academia that they—ironically—become delusional. They misconstrue Platonian rationalism to justify murder. “The Secret History” is a warning about what happens when people try to emulate a lifestyle or even aesthetic that’s based in problematic ideas. You can’t completely separate the problematic aspects from classical thought, just as you can’t always separate dark academia from the issues of elitism that exist within the subculture.