Shi: Reading Between the Lines

"The Secret History" reminds us not to romanticize our time at Dartmouth.

by Katie Shi | 9/28/17 1:00am

When I first read Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” as a high school student, I loved its romanticization of academia. The novel ostensibly focuses on the aesthetics of higher education. The main character, Richard Papen, arrives at the fictitious Hampden College and instantly falls in love with New England. He later manages to join five other students in the school’s exclusive classics department and spends most of his time bonding with his classmates over studying Greek literature.

The idea of an education based solely on the classics, as presented by Tartt, is an appealing one. Papen is fascinated by his new friends and their professor, the charming and enigmatic Julian Morrow, whose intimate classroom sessions Papen compares to a “benevolent dictatorship.” Morrow teaches them literature, history and philosophy in the style of the ancient Greeks, and Papen’s love for the language is palpable. Fans of “The Secret History” are caught by its lyrical prose and its focus on the sublime; there are hundreds of Internet collages that juxtapose Romanesque architecture and dusty bookshelves with thin, pale, cigarette-holding hands and choice quotes such as “Beauty is terror” and “morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”

But my original love for the novel’s aesthetic appeal ignored its problematic portrayals of its characters and of university life in general. Morrow wants his students to be modern versions of Plato’s philosopher-kings. He monopolizes his students’ curricula, forbidding them from taking classes outside of his department and creating the complete opposite of what a college education should be. The entire narrative carries a judgmental and elitist undertone — Papen looks down upon most students for doing drugs and drinking, though he does the same things himself, and his classmates distinguish themselves by flaunting their wealth and their familiarity with “The Iliad.” This is in addition to a host of other issues uncovered in the latter half of the book, including problems with mental health, addiction and obsession that pervade Hampden’s campus life. Papen combines his first impressions of Hampden and the sense of grandeur that Morrow and the other classics students exude to construct a rose-colored view of the school. He chooses to ignore the flaws of his peers — one classmate, for example, has a drinking problem, while another frequently uses homophobic and sexist slurs — in order to maintain this idealized and false version of his college experience.

I reread “The Secret History” the summer before starting college, and I was reminded of Papen’s initial experience at Hampden when my own first impression of Dartmouth turned out to be one of perfection. When I arrived on campus, I was enchanted by its picture-perfect façade: Baker’s gleaming white bell tower, the ivy-covered buildings and the gigantic trees surrounding Hanover. My optimism was only amplified during First-Year Trips and Orientation. During the class meetings we attended, we were constantly reassured by various administrators that our time at Dartmouth would be the best four years of our lives. However, I have to remember that my initial impressions and expectations for Dartmouth cannot blind me from reality — most members of the freshman class had projected the best versions of themselves during those first few weeks, just as I had, hiding personal shortcomings under polished façades.

Yes, Dartmouth’s community and dedication to undergraduate education are unique — those qualities were what compelled me to apply in the first place. I know that some of my favorite memories will inevitably take place here. But I don’t want my time at Dartmouth to be the best four years of my life — that would imply that Dartmouth is somehow perfect, which simply isn’t true. I don’t want to reach the peak of my potential when I’m 21. Instead, I want my college experience to be centered on growth, both for myself and for my peers. I hope that we’ll continue to recognize the flaws in our campus culture and try our best to fix them while broadening our understanding of the rest of the world. I hope that by the time I graduate, I’ll remember the fantastic people I’ve met and classes I’ve taken, not the superficial aesthetics that attracted me as a high school student. For now, I just want to enjoy my first term at Dartmouth without any unrealistic expectations; I hope that other freshmen do the same.