The Secret History: The Greek Aspect

The novel The Secret History by Donna Tartt is a reflection of ancient Greek. It revolves around six students who are studying Greek art, history and culture. They communicate perfectly in ancient Greek. Their teacher, Julian, has a similar love for the Greek way of living. The Greek culture plays a leading role in the development of the novel and its society.

The novel revolves around the Greek class students. Everyone else feels foreign to the novel. In a way, the author creates a new society within Campden. This makes the novel primarily Greek. The lives of the students are limited to Greek classes except where something else can assist in the development of the Greek class. A good example in the novel is where Richard is allowed to attend French classes since he “appear[s] to be deficient in the area of modern languages” (Tartt, 29) However, this is probably to expand the field of study for him so that he would now be able to view the Greek culture and History in other perspectives which are unavailable in Greek. When Richard questions the idea of having one teacher, Julian suggests that this school system produced the likes of Plato and Aristotle.

The classroom is decorated using Greek themes. The students do not attend classes in normal classrooms. Instead, they attend their class in Julian’s office. Richard describes the office as “a beautiful room [with] flowers everywhere, roses and carnations and anemones.” He further points other ornamental habits that are associated with ancient Greek and says that the smell of roses blended in the air with that of Chinese tea bergamot and camphor. He feels intoxicated with the strong smells in the room. He also finds the entire room equipped with beautiful art that was associated with ancient Greek such as porcelains, oriental rugs and tiny paintings. He says the room gave him an impression like he was in one of those “Byzantine churches that are so plain on the outside; inside, the most paradisal painted eggshell of gilt and tesserae,” (26). Byzantine art owes its origin from ancient Greek and was founded in Byzantium, an old city of Greek, after which it is named (Rowland par 1).

Even more, the office is referred to as the Lyceum by the school registrar and the students in the Greek class. This according to the Greek society is a gymnastic that was dedicated to Apollo Lyceus. It may also refer to a school. The reference to it as the Lyceum further emphasizes the importance of the Greet aspect in the society of The Secret History. The name also emphasizes the isolation that was involved in their pursue of the course.

The main characters are isolated from other students in their study of Greek aspects. The narrator describes the situation by saying that he felt like he was “transferring entirely out of Hampden College into [Julian’s] own little academy of ancient Greek, student body five, six including [him]” (30). It is a lot like they are indeed in the world of their own. The characters also give up everything else to study what Julian claims to be “art, history, philosophy, all sorts of things” (30).

Student’s who are attending this class all seem to be escaping from their normal lives. Richard leaves his home and goes to Campden such that he has no intention of going back. His parents do not care for him to return either, and they sell his furniture when he leaves. Henry, on the other hand, has a mysterious history. He does not share much about his life with the others. The narrator keeps the history of Henry unclear. He too seems uninformed about Henry.

The students and their teacher also quote Greek authors at the slightest opportunity. When the narrator tells Julian that he is not an heir of the French throne, he, Julian, “quote[s] a little epigram about honesty being a dangerous virtue” (26). In describing Camilla, the narrator says, “She was a living reverie for me: the mere sight of her sparked an almost infinite range of fantasy, from Greek to Gothic, from vulgar to divine (103)” Moreover study is so ingrained in them that when Richard awakes in the hospital, Henry wants if he could bring him something to read.

These students do not have economic use of the Greek culture, history and language either. Charles argues that Henry has no need for a job. He however seems the most devoted of the students. Charles argues that Henry has so much money that he would never need to be employed. The narrator too does not have a definite plan for what he needs to do with his studies once he is through. Their devotion to studying Greek is not driven by money. Instead, they are driven by an inner obsession which the current the reader may not understand; far more than mere interest to learn a foreign culture.

Bunny even exploits Henry and has him pay for a trip to Rome where there exists a statue of his hero Caesar Augustus. He is pressed to get there and brags to Richard that he will be thinking of him while “drinking Campari and riding the gondolas (112)” While the Greek culture and the Roman culture are significantly different, their similarities would necessitate their interest interchangeably.

Once in a while, the characters have a predominantly Greek dinner. Before these dinners, they would tire themselves with preparations. Francis would get worried about what to prepare for the dinner by leafing through cookbooks, “what wine to serve with it, which dishes to use, what to have in the wings as a backup course should the soufflé fall.” They got their tuxedoes to the cleaners’, ordered for flowers and “Bunny put away his copy of The Bride of Fu Manchu and started carrying around a volume of Homer instead.” The transformation was complete. They became more Greek as the days went by. They would get so tired that by five minutes before Julian’s arrival they would be laying lazily in the house. The sound of the doorbell would however reawaken them, start off conversations and whip away the creases from their clothing (96).

Henry is depicted as a Machiavellian Greek leader. He rules with a high hand. He wants everyone to follow him, and when Bunny does not shake before him, he makes plans to kill him. It is only like an ancient Greek leader to do such things. His name too is a depiction of his leadership role. The name Henry had been overused in the past by leaders and Kings.

Henry has devoted his life to studies in Greek that he gains prowess in it. He understands every aspect of it and, for instance, solves a question that had been failing the rest of the team in an instant. He does not seem to try to solve problems that are set before him. The ancient Greek education system seems like it for him. He is concerned about every aspect of it. For instance, when Richard is admitted into the course, he ‘initiates’ him into the course by asking about how much he has done in Greek. He asks about the writers he has read and much more. Eventually, Richard is annoyed but that is only like the leader in Henry.

Like them, their teacher, Julian, is obsessed with Greek. He argues that one cannot call what they do in their classes work. Instead, he feels it is “the most glorious kind of play (32).” He feels like their classes are a form of indulgence. He is devoted to seeing the students succeeding in their study of the Greek language, culture and history. For this reason, he only picks a select few students and offers to give them his best. To succeed in their studies, he understands that they need backing of like-minded people and insists on being the only person mentoring his students. He advises them soundly as far as complete interest of Greek is concerned. A good instance is where he gets his students to join certain classes to get some secondary knowledge that would guide them in, learning Greek. Richard is asked to join the French class since he lacks any knowledge of modern languages.

These six students also undergo a transformation. Their transformation is so intense that they could be compared to the Greeks themselves. At one point, Julian asks, “Are we, in this room, really very different from the Greeks or the Romans? Obsessed with duty, piety, loyalty, sacrifice? (41)” This provokes the narrator to think about a statement that had been made by Henry about the six of them taking over the whole Campden. To this, Richard argues that if Henry had been a student in another class, the teacher would have summoned a psychologist in five minutes.

The students attempt to perform the Bacchanal. This is a Greek ritual that is considered absolutely dangerous. Even worse, they are drawn by the fact that it has not been performed for over a thousand years. It is during this ritual that Henry accidentally kills a farmer hence triggering the conflict of the novel. When explaining the situation, Henry does not stop protecting their actions. He says the desire to lose the state of self is so intense and that the activity had other advantages that are undocumented. These advantages are only hinted on in the sources. They only learned them after attempting to perform the activity.

The Bacchanal involved a conversion and self-purification that more or less involved religion. Henry says that the activity failed several times before they figured out the religious connection. He says that “any religious ritual is arbitrary unless one can see past it to the deeper meaning (178).” The depiction here is that of a combination of culture, religion, and heritage.

Finally, the novel makes reference to many Greek works. These include Aristotle’s Republic, Homer’s The Iliad, Aristotle’s Poetics and Euripides’ Bacchae. The author further shows a much interest in ancient Greek by going to the point of using them in her works when she says, “Nihil sub sole novum, (320)” (Nothing is new under the sun).

In conclusion, The Secret History is one brimming with the cultural heritage and History of the Greek. It is only owing to the existence of Greek class that the author can obtain her main characters. The obsession of learning the aspects of Greek prompts them to attempt the Bacchanal ritual. The bacchanal ritual turns sour and leads to the murder of a farmer. Bunny learns about this occurrence and uses it to his advantage and becomes a threat to the coherence of the rest of the group. This change of events necessitates the conflict of the novel. The Greek culture is not only important; it is a necessity for the unfolding of this novel.

Works Cited

Rowland, Benjamin. “Byzantine (330-1453) | Scholastic ART |” N.p., n.d. Web. 18 July 2014.

Turner, Monika. “reek Tragedy and its Relevance to the Contemporary Novel, With Specific Reference to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.” Threads of Influence. N.p., 2009. Web. 18 July 2014.

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