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As winter is beginning to set in, the days are getting shorter and there seems to be a general hazy gloom outside. Combine this spooky weather with the looming presence of finals, and it’s the perfect time to delve into a novel that is truly the epitome of “dark academia.”

Donna Tartt’s novel “The Secret History” was originally published in 1992, and received a Pulitzer Prize in 2014. Even later, the book became wildly popular in recent years on “BookTok.”  This novel went from a well-respected staple of the genre to almost a cult classic among TikTokers, sparking a myriad of video edits and aesthetics inspired by the novel.

Having read Tartt’s second novel, “The Goldfinch,” I was eager to see what the fuss was about with her debut piece, particularly after hearing it so highly recommended. It did not disappoint. 

The story follows a college-age boy, Richard, as he moves from a poor town in California to study at an elite college in New England, eventually joining a tight-knit group of students studying classics together. At first, it seems to depict an idyllic collegiate experience, with days spent lounging at his classmate’s remote estate. 

Soon, the novel takes an uncanny turn and it’s eventually revealed that Richard’s classmates and friends, inspired by their eccentric professor, had been attempting to perform a bacchanal – a cult-like ritual – and in their efforts had killed a man after stumbling into his farm in a drug-induced haze. 

In the aftermath, they spiral, turning on each other and trying to live with the guilt. They even eventually plot and carry out a second murder (entirely intentional, this time), the victim being one of their own. Bunny, their brash and overbearing friend who knew too much and was willing to tell. 

What’s interesting to me is the separation we feel from the plot of the story. Though the plot is riddled with mysterious, gut-wrenching, often disturbing details, almost none of it happens through the eyes of the narrator. In the entire first half of the book, Richard is entirely unaware of what’s going on around him. In some ways, this serves to build up the sense of mystery.

By having her protagonist be an outsider both to the close-knit group of friends, as well as in his class standing, Tartt masterfully depicts the out-of-touch pretension and sense of superiority that comes with academics of generational wealth – so out of touch, in this scenario, that they feel next to no guilt for murdering a man they deemed to be of less importance. 

It’s also an important detail just how different the aftermaths of the murders were, presumably a commentary on how wealth can skew the public understanding of tragedy. While nobody seemed to notice or care about the poor farmer’s death, save for a short news clipping, Bunny’s death sparked an upheaval of the entire campus that left the group unable to avoid the repercussions of their actions. 

In many ways, it reminds me of Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” – the protagonist is merely an observer, looking in on the uber-wealthy with curiosity, and eventually witnessing the demise of their friendly, posh exteriors.

The book is gritty (too gritty for me, at some points) but intriguing and complex. It will leave you wanting to read it over and over again to catch the details and foreshadowing you might have missed on the first (or fifth) read. 

Maggie Roth

George Mason University '22

Maggie Roth is a senior at George Mason from Cape May, New Jersey. She is studying Communication with a concentration in Journalism and a minor in Social Justice. In addition to working with Her Campus, Maggie is the Culture Editor for Mason’s student newspaper, the Fourth Estate. Alongside a passion for writing and social justice, she loves baking and experimenting with different forms of crafting!
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