A New Narrator

(Finished with The Secret History)

Tim: I’ve been thinking a lot about the way this story is told to us: through the retrospection of an involved party, a first person narrator who is by design flawed, subjective, and likely delivers some rather inaccurate information despite the idea that time and contemplation allows him to be more objective. I’ve been wondering if I actually would have enjoyed this book more told by a limited third person narrator. I think I would, I think it would have been more interesting to have an omniscient narrator who was better able to reveal some of the paradoxes of the Greek club’s existence. I think a lot of what prevented me from really getting into this book was the constant feeling that I was being kept at arm’s length from the entire story.

Debby: That’s what I was talking about in our previous conversation. Elite societies maintain their status by keeping others out. Richard is constantly running into brick walls, as he is kept from some of the darkest truths that the group holds. As he is slowly let in, so is the reader. But even up to the end, we don’t know what role everyone is playing, or even what true “game” is being played. I think Tartt did a particularly impressive job of maintaining that distance while using a first-person narrator. I’m sorry you felt left out, Tim, but that really just means she did her work well 🙂

Tim: But I was kept at too much of a distance to lose myself in the proceedings, so she didn’t do her job that well. Let the narrator tell me what Richard is thinking and stay confined to his point of view, but, I don’t know, I think it’s very possible that by having a more objective look at this one aspect of the story, the entire story might have been more accessible. I didn’t need to know the intricacies of Henry’s mind, or anyone else’s, but I might have needed the opportunity to observe them for myself and compare that to Richard’s observations to attain Tartt’s desired effect.

Debby: I particularly liked how much of a mystery Henry was. He was this large, imposing young man with a powerful mind and unclear intentions. He always seemed to be getting his friends out of trouble; in general he seemed the most “stable.” Yet his compulsions were what bonded the group together. I feel like I have a great understanding of Henry, in retrospect, without ever witnessing him discuss his thoughts directly. It all seemed very Sherlock-Holmes-esque… but without the redemption.

Tim: Yes, for the most part I though Henry was a great character, and I don’t think a different narrator would have changed him much at all. But what I felt limited by was that there wasn’t a good way to tell what was actually true about him, or anyone else, and what was just Richard’s color. All the way up through the end of the book, there are a few too many seemingly unrelated threads. We’re getting away from the initial topic a little, but one of the things I did really like was how alive their world at Hampden seemed. Everyone did have their own lives, not all of which we saw, and I thought that was great. Having an omniscient or shifting narrator would have created an entirely different book, one that relied much more on mystery and surprise. It would have been perhaps a more exciting book, but also probably an inferior one. But I do think that having some sort of standard (i.e. objective descriptions of the action to measure Richard’s reactions against) could have made a big difference, even if we still spent the vast majority of the book embedded in Richard’s perceptions. I could be wrong. That’s not the book we’re presented with.

Debby: I think you make a great point about how realistic life at Hampden seemed. Looking back on my college experience, I am very aware of how much my life revolved around me. I was absorbed in classes, parties, sports, and other various activities. People shifted around me; I was not an integral part of any one person’s day-to-day life. Richard serves as a great representation of how college life really works. He gets to peek into the lives of a tight-knit group of friends, but he splits his time between that dynamic group and the constant movement that is college. I think that’s one of the reasons Richard is such an excellent choice for narrator; even if his voice is subjective, it is his reality.

Tim: Yes, I love that the story is Richard’s story, and I think as is the book does a very good job of displaying Hampden. But particularly when it comes to the main intrigue of the plot, I felt pushed away from parts of the story by having Richard as the only voice rather than being drawn into his experience. It’s very possible that a different narrator would have made that worse, but I’m curious what it would’ve been like.


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