The Fatal Flaw in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History

Aristotle coined the term Hamartia which literally translates “to miss the mark” or “to err”. We’ve come to understand this term as the fatal flaw and find it in most tragedies, especially Greek tragedies.

Basically, there is a reversal of fortunes that needs to take place in the plot. It’s often described as a single moment or an event that alters the hero’s good fortune and turns him toward a more tragic future. The chain of all these events and the complications on the journey make for a good story.

Richard, the main character of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, begins contemplating this literary device at the beginning of chapter one:

Does such a thing as “the fatal flaw,” that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”

What might this morbid longing for the picturesque mean? We know Richard is from a California suburb with blue-collar parents and heading to Vermont because of a college brochure he thought was pretty. That’s a longing for the picturesque, right? But what else is he after? What kind of vanity might be described as a morbid longing? When, exactly, does his fortune change?

This New York Times Book Review sums up this longing:

Ashamed of his family’s blue-collar roots, Richard decides to invent a new identity for himself at Hampden College. He erases the gas station where his father worked and the tract house he grew up in, and replaces them with a fictional Californian youth: swimming pools, orange groves and dissolute show-biz parties. He spends his meager savings on designer clothes; lies, shamelessly, carelessly, about his past…”

I invite you to think through this as you start the novel and be sure to share your theories with me by commenting below. I’m all ears.
The Fatal Flaw in The Secret History by Donna Tartt

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Jessica S. Manuel earned her B.A. in English with an emphasis in Critical Theory and a minor in Theological Studies from The Master’s University. She went on to earn her M.A. in English (Literature) from San Francisco State University where she studied 19th-20th Century Literature with a special studies emphasis in Critical Theory. After examining the intersections of psychoanalysis and contemporary literature, she wrote her thesis on Haruki Murakami’s use of the unconscious in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. After finishing her degree, she continued her education at University of California, San Diego where she studied Teaching Adult Learners and literature. She offers online adult literature courses for life-long learners through Book Oblivion Academy and also teaches writing and literature courses at the college level.