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“The Secret History” and the Dark Academia Aesthetic

“Forgive me, for all the things I did but mostly for the ones I did not” – Donna Tartt, The Secret History

Donna Tartt’s debut novel The Secret History can best be described as a dark academia thriller. If you’re unfamiliar with the term “dark academia”, think classic literature and basically a romanticization of education. The first thing that comes to my mind is the aesthetic and atmosphere of a Harry Potter book or movie. The neutral tones of Hogwarts, the old buildings, the mystery, and curiosity truly resemble the Harry Potter vibe. Dead Poets Society is another great cinematic example. The Secret History manages to encompass nearly every aspect of this dark academia aesthetic.

The novel takes place in the 1980s at a small, elite, liberal arts college in Vermont called Hampden. It centers around six of the college’s Greek classics students: Richard Papen, Francis Abernathy, Henry Winter, Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran, and twins Camila and Charles Macaulay. The novel is narrated from Richard Papen’s point of view. Years after his time at Hampden, Richard recalls the events that led to the murder of one of the Greek students, Bunny. In fact, in the prologue, Richard details parts of the murder revealing himself and the five other students were a part of it. He concludes the prologue by claiming, “I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell”. 

Something about the dark academia aesthetic is cozy and fall-like. The Aesthetics Wikipedia rattles off some key motifs and values of dark academia including “books, history, old money, existentialism, intelligence, learning, curiosity, and intrigue”. All of them can be found in Tartt’s novel. I genuinely believe that, apart from the actual plot, this aesthetic is what is so addicting about the story. The imagery Tartt creates through her incredible writing is truly unmatched to any thriller I have read before. I loved this one quote from chapter two, while Richard is looking out his dorm room window: “I was staring out the window in a sort of trance, at the meadow cropped close like bright green velvet and billowing into carpeted hills at the horizon, when I saw the twins, far below, gliding like a pair of ghosts on the lawn.” This is just one example of many in a book filled with incredible writing.

Aesthetics aside, the plot alone is enough to get anyone to read it. The prologue had me from the moment I picked it up. Why did they kill one of their best friends? Why are we learning about it so soon? Even more confusing is the fact that the novel doesn’t end after Bunny is murdered. A second part details the harrowing events that follow.

As great as the aesthetic is, my favorite aspect of The Secret History was probably the characters. I completed the book about a month ago and I still think about the characters now and then. You feel like you’re at the Vermont college studying Greek with the students and their eccentric professor, Julian. Their development throughout the book is amazing. Characters I started out disliking became some of my favorite literary characters ever by the end. The bond they have (considering the circumstances of literally murdering their friend) is unlike any I have seen before.
I could honestly go on about this book forever. Do yourself a favor and pick up The Secret History for your dark academia fix this fall!

Abby Morris

Emmanuel '23

Abby is a junior at Emmanuel College majoring in Communications and minoring in film and digital media studies. She loves music, reading, and her dogs!
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