The novel A Secret History by Donna Tartt is like a reflection on 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 fro the Greek way of living. How are the Greek culture, art and history depicted in the novel?
The novel revo0lves around the Greek class students. Every one else feels foreign to the novel. In a way, the author creates a new society within Camden. This makes the novel primarily Greek. The lives of the students are limited to Greek classes except where something else can assist to the growth of the Greek class. The only exception I find 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.”
The class 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 “churches that are so plain on the outside; inside, the most paradisal painted eggshell of gilt and tesserae.”
Further, the main characters are isolated from other students. 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 [Richard].” It is a lot like they are indeed in a 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.”
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 don’t 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.
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 Greek 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.” He feels like their classes are a form of indulgence.
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?” 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 drawn by the fact that it has not been performed for over a thousand years. It is during this ritual that Henry accidentally kills author hence triggering the conflict of the novel.
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