Miasma in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History

“To many men… the miasma of peace seems more suffocating than the bracing air of war.”

~George Steiner

By Jessica S. Manuel

A little while back, we began thinking about the fatal flaw, that showy dark crack running down the middle of life. Richard, our protagonist in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, wonders if this exists outside of literature.

Another profound moment occurs in the beginning of the novel when we are given an insight into Richard’s mind from the pages of an old notebook:

“There is to me about this place a smell of rot, the mell of rot that ripe fruit makes. Nowhere, ever, have the hideous mechanics of birth and copulation and death–those monstrous upheavals of life that the Greeks call miasma, defilement–been so brutal or been painted up to look so pretty; have so many people put so much faith in lies and mutability and death death death.”

The utter darkness of this novel from the very beginning might be entirely eclipsed if we don’t pause for a moment to understand the history of this term miasma.

According to Karen Armstrong in The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions:

“Long after the dark age, Greeks continued to be preoccupied by tales of men and women who murdered their parents and abused their children. These unnatural deeds, even if committed unwittingly, contained a contagious power (miasma) that had an independent life of its own. Until it had been purged by the sacrificial death of the wrongdoer, society would be chronically infected by plague and catastrophe.”

We already know from the prologue that the secret the narrator reveals is how he and his friends got away with murdering someone named Bunny. 

When miasma is mentioned only a few pages later, we ought to wonder if there will be a sacrificial death that takes place to purge the wrongdoing that we already know about. Keep your eyes and your nose open for this “necessary sacrifice.” After all, miasma is now defined as “a highly unpleasant smell or vapor.” Can you smell the guilt? 

Do you have a nagging question about the novel? I’m only an email away. If I don’t have an answer, I’ll dig for one with readers, mentors, and friends.