Why You Should Read ‘The Secret History’ If You Want To Understand Anti-Hero Stories


Credit: NPR

Credit: NPR

Credit: NPR

The end of Breaking Bad‘s run has inspired a wide-ranging discussion about what makes an anti-hero show an effective exploration of the attraction and repulsion we feel to the people we shouldn’t root for but do, whether there are what the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum has dubbed “Bad Fans,” viewers who embrace anti-heroes in defiance of the moral clues that they should reject the bad men they venerate, and whether the existence of “Bad Fans” means a show has failed. But in thinking about how to make an anti-hero story balance, and how to structure an arc that moves from seduction to rejection, I realized I had to reach beyond television, and back twenty-one years to the publication of Donna Tartt’s debut novel, The Secret History.

Tartt’s book follows Richard Papen, a college student from California, over the course of an academic year at Hampden College, where he finds his way into the Greek department, and becomes friends with the clique of students who preceded him into the program: Bunny, Francis, Charles and Camilla, who are twins, and Henry, the star student and lodestar of the group. Richard isn’t precisely an audience surrogate, because he has a specific set of experiences and challenges that set him apart from us. But his experience with the other Greek students is essentially identical to that of a viewer sitting at home watching an anti-hero drama. He spots them from a distance, and is charmed by their glamorous style, their competence at Greek, and their close bond, especially given Richard’s own friendlessness. By the time Richard finds out that Francis, Charles, Camilla and Henry killed a local farmer during an attempt at a bacchanal, he’s too fascinated by them, and too invested in his friendship with them, to be horrified. And over time, he becomes an in-narrative version of one of Nussbaum’s bad fans, moving from prioritizing his friends’ fates over the dead man’s life to participating in another murder, that of Bunny, who seems in danger of exposing the first killing.

But what makes The Secret History important to this debate isn’t just the choices that Richard makes. Because The Secret History is explicitly a story that Richard is telling us, he’s deeply concerned with narrative, and with analyzing his own reactions to things that actually happened to him, instead of his consumption of fictionalized narratives from which he’s at a distance. He’s initially attracted to the Greek students for some of the same reasons we find ourselves attracted to anti-heroic characters, the sense that they occupy a different world from the one that feels mundane and unsatisfying to him. “It was why I admired Julian [the professor who runs the Greek department], and Henry in particular,” Richard recalls. “Their reason, their very eyes and ears were fixed irrevocably in the confines of those stern and ancient rhythms–the world, in fact, was not their home, at least not the world as I knew it–and far from being occasional visitors to this land which I knew myself only as an admiring tourist, they were pretty much permanent residents.”

What’s attractive to Richard is precisely that the students in the Greek program in their teacher have different priorities and different ethics than the rest of the college. They take almost all of their classes with Julian, rather than being integrated into the rest of the faculty and student body, they prioritize aesthetics and manners over conventional morality, and their sense of style is classical rather than vulgar and modern, their excesses inspired by ideals they believe to be ancient rather than fads, like for cocaine and methamphetamine. Richard has more in common with the rest of the student body, represented largely by a vivacious party girl named Judy Poovey, than he’d care to admit, but he’s eager to fit in with the Greek students, particularly once he’s made the commitment to switch into their department and isolated himself from other potential friends and classmates.

That combination of genuine attraction and desire to fit in leads Richard to become not just socially entangled with the Greek students, but morally involved in their own lapses. Take, for example, Richard’s reaction to the news that his new friends have killed a man–and more specifically, his reactions to how they feel about the killing and their own responsibility for it:

“It’s a terrible thing, what we did,” said Franics aburptly. “I mean, this man was not Voltaire we killed. But still. It’s a shame. I feel bad about it.”
“Well, of course, I do too,” said Henry matter-of-factly. “But not enough to want to go to jail for it.”
Francis snorted and poured himself another shot of whiskey and drank it straight off. “No,” he said. “Not that bad.”
Nobody said anything for a moment. I felt sleepy, ill, as if this were some lingering and dyspeptic dream. I had said it before, but I said it again, mildly surprised at the sound of my own voice in the quiet room. “What are you going to do?”

Richard’s aware, of course, that the man’s death is a tragedy, and that murder is wrong. But Charles and Henry’s justifications give him both room to feel revulsion that they’ve committed murder, and a rationale that allows him to remain friends with them without going to the police. Richard wanted to be seduced by them in the first place–he’s just getting a rather different initiation into their secret circle than the one he imagined in the first place.

And once Richard’s made that first step, his complicity only deepens, and he becomes involved in a plan to lure Bunny out to an isolated spot in the woods where he can be pushed off a ledge and drowned if the fall fails to break his neck. Repetition in life, serves the same purpose as repetition on television, to draw Richard–and us as viewers–deeper into an idea. “The idea of murdering Bunny was horrific, impossible; nonetheless we dwelt on it incessantly, convinced ourselves there was no alternative, devised plans which seemed slightly improbable and ridiculous but which actually worked quite well when put to the test,” Richard remembers.”A month or two before, I would have been appalled at the idea of any murder at all. But that Sunday afternoon, as I actually stood watching one, it seemed the easiest thing in the world. How quickly he fell; how soon it was over.” Ultimately, Richard doesn’t have to induce Bunny to take his fateful walk–he takes it of his own accord–and Henry does the actual pushing, while Camilla joins him in confirming that Bunny is really dead.

That Richard doesn’t lay a hand on Bunny doesn’t mean he isn’t complicit. He provides cover for Charles, Camilla, Francis, and Henry, keeps their secrets, helps them maintain their collective facade at Bunny’s funeral. Yet, unlike the rest of them, he’s eventually able to reintegrate into civilian life to a certain extent. Richard is the only character who graduates from college: Henry dies by suicide, Charles sucuumbs to drink and a life washing dishes in a diner, Camilla returns home to care for her grandmother, and Francis, who is gay, marries a woman rather than accept being disinherited. Richard dates, he finishes graduate school, and ultimately, he becomes a teacher. That’s not to say that he repents, or ever fully recovers from the damage he did to Bunny and to the lives of the people who loved him. But Richard is able, as his fellow Greek students are not, to reckon with what attracted him to them in the first place.

“It’s funny,” he recalls towards the end of the novel.” In retelling these events, I have fought against a tendency to sentimentalize Julian, to make him seem very saintly–basically to falsify him–in order to make our veneration of him seem more explicable; to make it seem something more, in short, than my own fatal tendency to try to make interesting people good. And I know I said earlier that he was perfect but he wasn’t perfect, far from it; he could be silly and vain and remote and often cruel and still we loved him, in spite of, because.” It’s hard to think of a better summation of the reaction of some viewers to the anti-hero age as a “fatal tendency to try to make interesting people good.” Most of us will be fortunate enough not to need those rationalizations in our own lives, as an excuse for our own terrible acts. But we have more in common with Richard Papen than I suspect many of us would like to acknowledge.