The Secret History ends in incest and gunshots as Vox Book Club’s May pick draws to a close

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Zac Freeland/Vox

The classics kids face their final death at the end of The Secret History.

And so we come to the end of The Secret History — but not to the end of our discussion! Next week, we’ll be meeting on Zoom for our May live event.

“But Constance,” you say, “what could possibly top April’s event with N.K. Jemisin? Surely you haven’t landed Donna Tartt herself?”

No I have not, gentle reader; Donna Tartt does not do events. But we have found someone we think will be perfect to talk the book with.

On Thursday, May 28 at 5 pm, I’ll be hanging out on Zoom with the queen of the internet herself, Nicole Cliffe, to discuss The Secret History. We would love to see you there, and you can RSVP here.

Nicole Cliffe co-founded The Toast, a.k.a. the only good website on the internet, Vox excepted. She’s currently a columnist for Slate, and she’s also written for the Guardian and is a former judge of the Morning News’ Tournament of Books. She reviewed The Secret History for The Awl in 2012. I plan to be extremely starstruck by her.

In the meantime, we’ve got chapter 8 and the epilogue of The Secret History to get through, with all of its incestuous reveals, heart-breaking posthumous letters, and final murders. Let’s get to it.

At the end of The Secret History, everything is corrupt

Here, at the end of the book, those kids who loafed around a country house quoting The Waste Land at each other seem so far away. But the problem is not that they were destroyed or corrupted: It’s that the state of innocence they seemed to live in then never truly existed.

Even back when Richard thought nothing was wrong, before Bunny’s murder, before the farmer, before all of that, this world was corrupt. The twins were sleeping together, and Charles was hurting Camilla. Francis was pining after Charles and planning his life of closeted secrecy. And Henry and Richard — well.

“You don’t feel a great deal of emotion for other people, do you?” Henry asks Richard in this section, adding, “I don’t, either.” Richard protests that he does feel emotion for other people, but Henry doesn’t believe him, and I don’t know if I do either.

Richard’s whole thing is one of the great ambiguities in The Secret History. He starts off as our self-insert, this melancholy dreamer who grew up on the West Coast, is from a lower-middle-class, and has a massive chip on his shoulder about it, trying to fit in with all these New England snobs who make fun of him when he uses phrases like “totally weird.”

But then Richard throws in his lot with murderers so quickly. And he spends so much of his time in a drugged-out haze, trying desperately to deny to himself a number of things that seem very clear from this angle (that he’s in love with Francis, for one). Trying to parse out the motivation for why he does what he does is almost impossible, and Henry’s suggestion that maybe he’s just a sociopath seems as plausible as any.

Henry at last transitions in this last chapter into a fully sinister figure, one whom even Richard is now more afraid of than for. It helps that it starts to look a lot like Henry was planning to pin Bunny’s murder on Richard if it came to that (remember when Henry wouldn’t let Richard share the same alibi that the core four were using?). But then we also get Henry saying things like, “My life, for the most part, has been very stale and colorless. Dead, I mean. … But then it changed. The night I killed that man,” and “Now I know that I can do anything that I want,” re his discoveries after the aforementioned murder, and it becomes downright impossible for Richard to pass off all this bloodshed as a series of well-intentioned accidents.

But what Henry decides to do in the end — what presumably he decides he wants to do — is to kill himself. After saying he’d like the whiskey-soaked liability that is Charles to disappear from the planet, and after Charles tries to kill him, Henry ends up shooting himself with Charles’s gun.

Richard’s conclusion is that Henry’s suicide is his final tribute to Julian, and to the heroic ideals of Julian’s Greek class: duty, piety, loyalty, sacrifice. But those are not ideals that Henry has ever seemed particularly interested in. What Henry wanted was to escape from his own mind, to lose himself in something bigger. And he seems to have concluded, in the end, that what he can lose himself in is this fraught and fractured group. He killed himself in service to them.

Let’s talk!

In this section, I’ve collected stray thoughts and questions I have about chapter 8 and the epilogue of The Secret History. You can use them as a guide for your own conversation in our comments section, or in your own community. Or start off with your own questions! Please just mark your spoilers and be nice to each other.

  1. Francis mentions that he has lost his sense of smell due to a sinus infection. Does Francis — a man ahead of his time in so many ways — have the rona?
  2. Do you think Henry really was trying to frame Richard? Why?
  3. What do you think Henry whispered to Camilla right before he shot himself?
  4. Richard throws Henry one last Sherlock Holmes reference with the suggestion that maybe he isn’t really dead, and then Richard ends up seeing Henry in that odd dream, looking at pictures of churches. What do you think is going on there?
  5. Julian finds out about the murders in this section after he receives that heartbreaking final letter from Bunny. And when Richard sees Julian’s reaction, he mentally reclassifies Julian as no longer a “good parent” but someone “ambiguous, a moral neutral, whose beguiling trappings concealed a being watchful, capricious, and heartless.” Is Richard essentially turning Julian into a Greek God on us?
  6. Speaking of Bunny’s letter, woof does that one hurt. Do you think Bunny genuinely believed the rest of the classics kids were going to kill him?
  7. Is Richard lowkey more upset that he’s losing course credits than about all the murdering?
  8. The epilogue sees Richard resentfully back in California, an alcoholic Charles shacked up with a married woman in Texas, Camilla looking after an elderly aunt, and Francis suicidal and engaged to a woman he hates. How do you feel about these final fates? Do they seem right to you?
  9. Secret History F/M/K. There is a correct answer, and I will elaborate on it in the comments.

Sound off in the comments below, or wherever you’d like to talk, and meet us back here next week for our live event. And to make sure you don’t miss anything, sign up for our newsletter!

Author: Constance Grady

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