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A Secret History by Donna Tartt – A Psychoanalytical Approach

The Secret History by Donna Tartt is a mind-boggling novel about 6 students studying Greek at a college in Vermont where two of the students actually die. There is a lot going on from a mental standpoint in these characters, which Freud’s theory can help with. Despite how horrific the events that happen are, a psychoanalytical approach to the novel allows the reader to really understand the characters presented because it helps one to see into the mind of the characters. The best place to start analyzing would be around the end of chapter 4.

Henry, Francis, and the twins performed a bacchanal party where they went into a “Dionysiac frenzy” (Tartt, 163) and Henry admitted to killing someone after Richard guessed at it. As for why, Henry says that being able “to escape the cognitive mode of experience, to transcend the accident of one’s moment of being” (Tartt, 164) was good enough to attempt the endeavor. Using Freud’s theory, one can asses that this “obsess[ion] with the idea” (Tartt, 164) could potentially be due to an unconscious desire to perform the deed. Henry, throughout the novel, is a quiet gentleman that Richard seems to be able to read well. Given that information of his character, it seems almost as though Henry would be the last person to partake in such an act, giving the sense that it was an unconscious desire that even Henry did not know about.

The novel also contains a good amount of foreshadowing to Henry’s admission of killing someone. Throughout the novel, Richard remarks about how certain things would make sense in the future and how “it is easy to see things in retrospect” (Tartt, 93). This leads one to see how Richard may have repressed some of the events he witnessed. He never quite dwelled on anything until the admission. He would dismiss the events indifferently but his future self would mention how he had wished he knew what was to come. With how fond of the group Richard was, it isn’t difficult to understand why he may have repressed anything questionable or why he tried to keep himself out of issues, such as when Richard witnessed Julian and Henry talking discretely and Richard decided to leave and never mention it (Tartt, 71-72).

Talking about the killing of the man during the bacchanal, Henry discusses how “duality ceases to exist; there is no ego, no ‘I’” (Tartt, 167). In regards to ego, Freud describes it as the way we, as humanity, are most tied down to reality. With Henry’s apparent lack of ego in that moment, it raises the question of how we could even begin to function without ego. In accordance with Henry, we could lose all sense of morals and realities of the world and people around us. Henry describes that losing ego and himself altogether was “like being a baby” (Tartt, 167), which would confirm that it would be like having no moral compass whatsoever.

With all of this in mind, there was really none of the defense mechanisms Freud describes in either Henry, Francis or the twins regarding the bacchanal. All four of them didn’t remember what lead up to the event but very much understood that they had killed a random man somehow. There was no repression or denial of it, except when dealing with Bunny for obvious reasons. None of them presented any projection or displacement of any kind. They simply understood what they had done and didn’t take it out on anyone else. They only wanted to move past it without facing consequences, so they decided to take care of Bunny.

Continuing on with the novel in chapter 5, the group decide to kill Bunny off and stage it as an accident when Bunny begins to blackmail the others. In figuring out how to carry out this plan of killing their friend, Henry’s demeanor begins to change in front of the readers’ eyes. He begins to care less about his own life, which is apparent when Henry mentions how “the more I hear about luxury barges, the less terrible death begins to seem” (Tartt, 235). These subtle things Henry mentions can give the reader a sense of foreshadowing to Henry’s suicide.

Leading up to the suicide was the arrest of Charles for drunk driving. While Richard was attempting to diffuse everything, they started talking about Henry and Richard posed the question of “not why he tells us what to do. But why we always do what he says” (Tartt, 447). It creates the idea that the other characters depend on Henry much more than they let on, especially when Charles can’t come up with a reason why. However, Charles starts to display an example of defense mechanisms onto Henry for why they’re currently in that situation. “I blame every bit of this on him” (Tartt, 447) Charles has said, showing how he has started to use Freud’s defense mechanism of projection.

In conclusion, The Secret History by Donna Tartt displays many instances of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory in regards to the models of the mind and also defense mechanisms. I realize that there are many more just in his psychoanalytic theory along with different theories, but these were the ones I most noticed throughout the novel. It was an overall interesting novel that shows how important the mind and its processes can be in all types of situations.

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