The Wine in the Water- Donna Tartt’s The Secret History


“… but I hear about disgusting things going on,/ here in the city- women leaving home/ to go to silly Bacchic rituals/ … dances honouring some upstart god,/ this Dionysus, whoever he may be … / If I catch him in this city, I’ll stop him./ He’ll make no more clatter with his thyrsus,/ or wave his hair around. I’ll chop off his head,/ slice it right from his body.”- Pentheus, The Bacchae, Euripides, 405 B.C

Discovering gold only makes you seek more of it.

Finding a good read can sometimes be frustrating. However, once you recognise good writing from an author, there is a higher chance that other books he or she has written will be worth the time.

A few weeks ago I was in the library, and I came across Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. With my stellar experience with The Goldfinch still bright in my memory, I wasted no time in picking it up.

It did not disappoint in the least.

I can easily envision a Classics lover, or just about any English (or perhaps psychology) major, spinning a, or multiple, dissertations out of this novel. Its multi-layered, intricate examination of topics leaves one spoilt for choice.

This novel is almost blatant, yet frustratingly opaque about its stance(s), as all good novels are. (How else would English majors get the satisfaction of a heated seminar room discussion?)

Its main cast of characters form a Classics class in Hampden University in Vermont. It includes the professor, Julian, and five students: Henry, Edmund (Bunny), Francis, twins Charles and Camilla and protagonist Richard. Deliberately secluding themselves from the rest of the student body, the group meets for lectures, or seminars, in Julian’s private room in an ivy-covered building called the Lyceum, where Julian, god-like and almost hypnotically, lectures on various Greek texts, traditions and the like.

Tartt does not hide the authors trick of setting the reader up with expectations only to deliver the opposite up her sleeve. It is performed in plain sight. In fact, I go so far as to suggest that she has fun with doing so.

The references in the novel jump out at the reader, without any attempt to hide themselves. The Lyceum is the name of Aristotle’s original school of philosophy. Ivy is known in classical literature for crowning the head of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, drunkenness, festivity and theatre, setting the stage for the main plot catalyst, the Bacchic madness the students induce.

The nomenclature of each group member represents a historical figure in the classical tradition. My analysis here may not be exactly what the author had in mind, but this is my interpretation as reader.

I personally believe that Julian represents Julian the Roman Emperor, Henry Henry VIII, Charles and Camilla the current day prince and princess, Francis Pope Francis and Richard and Edmund from the War of the Roses.

Julian the Roman Emperor was a Greek scholar as well as a military leader. The Secret History’s Julian takes a matter-of-fact, almost positive stance about the topic of war, such as when Henry theorises a military tryst in Hampden in one of his classes. Julian dazzles them with talk of glory and bloodshed. Yet, when he needs to fight for something in reality- his name, his cause, his students- he takes off.

Henry (or Henry VIII), the unswerving, bossy and stubborn monarch of the group is lost in the classics and scholarly pursuit to the point of delusion. He has no idea about modern progress, disbelieving at the fact that man has been on the moon, and fears the powers of a psychic over the FBI in discovering the group’s crime. His unwavering entrenchment in his beliefs, revered by the group as Authority, is increasingly put in question by the reader as having its foundation in silliness and fluff, instead of the cold front of logic we are first presented with.

Charles and Camilla, incestuous couple, are stunningly physically attractive, yet till the end, lack proper character development. Charles remains the mysterious drunk and Camilla the mysterious beauty.

Francis is rich, proper in every way, yet is gay and makes many inappropriate passes at Richard.

Edmund, who is murdered by his friends as he is seen as a threat, is the only one denied a proper ‘title’. He is dimunitively referred to as ‘Bunny’. Compared to the rest, he is the joker, the Puck, of the group both in his nomenclature and character.

Richard is allowed membership by the grace of Julian, yet he is distinctly an interloper. Throughout the novel, he is regularly drugged, drunk, in some sort of daze or half-asleep. He presents himself as the savior of possibilities. Yet, the haziness of his narrative puts his honesty in question. How much does he lie? Does he overstate his innocence in order to protect himself from the accusatory eye of the reader? Does his lack of clarity serve to excuse him from his sin; to relieve himself of shouldering his full share of blame?

As a brief history lesson on Western literary tradition will inform its pupils, much of Western literature finds its roots in the Classics, from Greece’s Homer to Rome’s Virgil. Julian, as the crossroads between Greek and Roman tradition, can be seen as the encompassing personification of Classical tradition, and his students, all named after historical English figures the offspring; the descendants of this tradition.

In the end, contrary to the starry-eyed glory and frenzy of battle the group hails in their Greek class, the other students kill Bunny out of sheer cowardice. Cold-blooded murder is seen as less of a hassle than a jail term. Unlike his namesake, Julian flees from a minor threat: that of his reputation. Henry, walking Classics anthology, shoots himself in the head in what Richard interpretes as an act of heroism (cowardice?). Charles and Camilla, pretty-faced monarchs, are stubbornly superficial, denying us any real depth till the end.

The blurb at the back of the novel describes the group as transcending normal morality. We are led to believe that this is a story of students who are so enveloped with the Classics in its pure form that everyday, watered-down morality does not apply to them. Their status as elevated, aloof intellectuals echoes that of the intellectuals of Plato’s The Symposium, able to think beyond, and presumably better, about morality and virtue in its purest state: homosexuality, reverence, beauty, drink, love, celebration.

Yet, the main characters, the supposed walking epitomes of such transcendence, unravel into a drunk-and-suicidal-in-a-tub, working-at-a-bar, everyday unrequited love, ugly, disappointing ending.

Interestingly, although his Greek career falls apart, Richard succeeds in graduating with a degree in English Literature.

One could interpret Tartt’s novel as a warning against the Classical distillation of morality: if not watered down into its modern-day tributaries, it is fallacious at best, dangerous at worst: The Secret History’s two cold-blooded murders is dramatic testimony to that. Perhaps the lessons and traditions of the Classics can, and should, only be realistically applied when diluted into modern day literature.

Modern day, and especially pop-culture literature receives quite a bit of flak sometimes, as being unworthy descendants of the Classics. The Secret History is a look over the shoulder and into the face of Classical tradition. Perhaps this look seeks to expose it, and to emphasise the need to not elevate it on a mantelpiece, untouchable and unrebukable. Deserving as its traditions are of the respect they receive, the Classics threaten tremendous repercussions if one seeks to apply them unadulterated into living, breathing (or not breathing, in Bunny’s case) reality.

Of course, for a work as multi-tiered and intricate as The Secret History, my response to it is far from being either complete or the only possible one. Yet, I leave it as that.

I look forward to reading other responses to this book.

4 thoughts on “The Wine in the Water- Donna Tartt’s The Secret History

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