Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” VS. Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr Ripley”

The Secret History Donna Tartt The Talented Mr Ripley Cover

I have decided to make my own detailed comparison between these two books – Donna Tartt’s bestseller of 1992 – The Secret History and Patricia Highsmith’s thriller The Talented Mr Ripley, published in 1955. Although they have completely different plot lines (though both deal with a murder and its cover-up), I also believe there are some very telling, nuanced similarities between the two books. It is not fantastic to suggest that, perhaps, when writing her first debut, Donna Tartt drew some inspiration from Highsmith’s genius. The similarities between the two stories are as follows:

*** SPOILER ALERT FOR THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY [1955] AND THE SECRET HISTORY [1992] ***

Richard Papen = Tom Ripley

–        Richard Papen in The Secret History and Tom Ripley from The Talented Mr Ripley share many similar characteristics and goals in life. From the start of their respective stories, they are both young men who come from relatively poor and economically-disadvantaged backgrounds. They are both troubled, ashamed of their familial situations and feel themselves being mediocre (if not below average). Tom expresses his frustration about his familial situation when his story recounts his “terrible” childhood with his Aunt Dottie who used to call him “sissy” [Highsmith, 1955: 34]. Tom has always dreamt of escaping his aunt and is ashamed of his need to receive money from her when he is already an adult. Similarly, Richard in The Secret History recounts to us his “terrible”, poor upbringing in California with his father who was “mean” , in their house that was “ugly”, adding that his “mother didn’t pay much attention to [him]” [Tartt: 1992: 6].

–        Both Richard and Tom in their respective stories want to become friends with people who are richer than they are and who are higher than them in the socio-economic “hierarchy”. Both Tom and Richard want to climb the societal ladder, rise above their “shameful” socio-economic standing and have an easier life. For Tom, Europe and Dickie Greenleaf represent this break from his mediocre, “meaningless” and hard existence, and, for Richard, that break can be made by getting to the north-east of the US and close to one special group of students of Ancient Greek at Hampden College. Both Tom and Richard hope that they will eventually have some of the brilliance of their “idols” by associating with them.

Tom thinks about his new life as Dickie Greenleaf in these terms: “this was the clean slate he had thought about on the boat coming from America. This was the real annihilation of his past and of himself, Tom Ripley, who was made up of that past, and his rebirth as a completely new person” [Highsmith, 1955: 110]. Similarly, Richard thinks of his new association with his new cool friends, of Hampden and of his new friend’s grand estate in these terms: “The idea of living there, of not having to go back ever again to asphalt and shopping malls and modular furniture; of living there…the idea was truly heavenly “ [Tartt, 1992: 113].

–        By using some of their charm and knowledge, both Richard and Tom in their respective stories meet richer and more successful people and “infiltrate” their circle. Then, they want to remain there at whatever cost and do not want to go back to their previous lives. Both Tom and Richard then take active steps – that go against morality – to remain in their new, more successful “positions”. In The Talented Mr Ripley, Tom is taken by Dickie, his luxurious lifestyle, and wants to lead a life just like that. Similarly, Richard in The Secret History is awed by one group of students in his college that are different from everyone else and who are richer than he is.

After befriending their “idols”, both Tom and Richard go extra lengths to “fit into” their new environment and be like their friends, including through imitation and deceit. Richard in The Secret History studies his Greek hard so as to be on the same level as his new brilliant classmates. He also buys expensive shirts on the money he does not have to appear as though he is richer than he actually is. Tom in The Talented Mr Ripley tries to entertain Dickie in a variety of ways, and, after he kills Dickie, impersonates him in many ways, appearing like he comes from a rich background.

Both Tom and Richard in their respective stories implicitly agree to bypass morality conventions and involve themselves in criminal and morally abhorrent acts to stay part of their “elite” status/group. Tom commits gruesome acts of murder to maintain his new acquired “status”, and Richard knows about the circumstances of Bunny’s death (takes part in it), but then does nothing – one of the reasons: he possibly does not want to part with his new friends or with his status of being somehow special and above other students (he does not want to incriminate himself either).

Henry Winter = Richard “Dickie” Greenleaf

–        “Unequal” male friendship: Richard Papen develops friendship with Henry Winter in The Secret History not unlike that between Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr Ripley. Both Henry Winter and Dickie Greenleaf are admired immensely by everyone, especially by their close friends – Dickie – for his beauty, style and wealth, and Henry – for his extraordinary wealth of knowledge and intelligence. Our main protagonists – Tom/Richard develop some sort of strange friendship based on some implicit understanding with these admired people. However, both also know that this friendship is “unequal” – both Henry and Dickie are wealthier than Richard and Tom respectively, and both Tom and Richard know that they would never get either the looks (of Dickie) or the brains (of Henry) of their “idols”.

Incidentally, Henry’s demise in Tartt’s novel is a suicide, while Dickie is presumed to have committed suicide in Highsmith’s novel. Also, Henry’s relationship with his love interest Camilla is as complicated as Dickie’s relationship with his girlfriend Marge.

Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran = Frederick “Freddie” Miles

–        There are similarities between these two characters and they both end up in similar situations in their respective stories. Before either Tom or Richard come to the scene in their respective stories, Bunny Corcoran (The Secret History) and Freddie Miles (The Talented Mr Ripley) are (or have been) “almost” best friends with Henry Winter and Dickie Greenleaf respectively.

–        Bunny and Freddie share similar characteristics: they are portrayed as relaxed, gregarious young men. Bunny is described as “…blond boy, rosy-cheeked and gum-chewing, with a restlessly cheery demeanourhis voice was loud and honking” [Tartt, 1992: 17]. Freddie in The Talented Mr Ripley is also portrayed as friendly with a relaxed attitude, that kind of attitude that only comes from having a lot of money.

–        Both Freddie and Bunny become suspicious of some strange activities that are going on around them – they know they hint at criminality. Bunny got to know about the truth of his friends’ one night escapade during his trip to Italy. Similarly, Freddie sensed that Tom was deceiving him about something when he came to visit Dickie at his supposed location in Rome.

–        Freddie and Bunny in their respective stories are killed because of their suspicions. Their deaths come as a result of them either witnessing something they should not have or suspecting/knowing something they should not. In that way, their murders are not primary intentions, but “by-products” and necessary actions to keep other crime (murderers) from being discovered. 

Murder and Setting

–        Inverted detective story: both The Secret History and The Talented Mr Ripley have elements of an inverted detective story where the identity of a perpetrator is known to the readers and the drama lies in trying to cover-up the dead. The Secret History is an example of an inverted detective story (the story starts with the discovery of Bunny’s body), and The Talented Mr Ripley can also be considered one when, in the story, Tom commits his crimes and tries to evade detection.

–        One of the murders in both The Secret History and The Talented Mr Ripley is said/considered to be either “an accident” or “a suicide”. In The Talented Mr Ripley, Dickie’s “disappearance” is considered to be a situation where Dickie killed himself somewhere, and Bunny’s demise is presumed to be an accident. Both were, in fact, intended murders.

–        The conclusion of both novels is that the culpable person(s) is (are) not caught and punished for the crimes (murders). Miraculously, neither Henry Winter’s group nor Tom Ripley in their respective stories are charged and punished for their murderous deeds. In The Talented Mr Ripley, the authorities do not think it is sensible to believe that Tom Ripley could be responsible for the crimes (he could not have been in two places at the same time). Similarly, the authorities in The Secret History could not imagine that a group of rich students from good families might have been responsible for something as gruesome as a murder.

–        Rome: This city plays a special part in both books and the focus is the experience of Rome as a tourist. In The Talented Mr Ripley, some of the action is taking place in Rome when Tom took Dickie’s identity, but there is also the experience of Rome as a tourist when Dickie and Tom take a trip to the city from Mongibello. Similarly, in The Secret History, Henry and Bunny visit Rome as part of their vacation and do all things that tourists usually do there, including visiting the remains of the Baths of Caracalla. Incidentally, if Bunny lives in Rome on the money from Henry, Tom lives in Rome on the money from Dickie (Dickie’s father).

–        Letter-writing: both books involve letter-writing as part of a big reveal or an important part of the story. If in The Talented Mr Ripley, letter-writing is involved to camouflage the real truth (Tom impersonates Dickie through writing), in The Secret History, letter-writing nearly brought the real truth behind one murder to light (when Bunny wrote his letter to Julian and it is discovered).

Donna Tartt’s “official” inspiration for The Secret History is cited to be Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Evelyn Waugh and her friend Bret Easton Ellis (perhaps she also saw The Dead Poets Society [1989] movie prior to the publication?). However, there appears to be a clear “The Talented Mr Ripley” vibe coming from The Secret History too – and the similarities are especially noticeable in some key story points and in the characterisation. It is very likely that Donna Tartt read and was familiar with The Talented Mr Ripley, but there is also good probability she might have taken something from it too.

What do you think of the similarities listed above?

23 thoughts on “Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” VS. Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr Ripley”

    1. The book’s concept is intriguing and the book is worth your read just because of it, if you are interested in fiction about people assuming others’ identities and murder cover-ups 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Ps

    Just saw from your about me page that you have similar interests (languages at least).

    Hablar español? Mi español es no bueno … I can understand it better than I can speak it. Managed to get by when in Spain.

    I’m also (trying) to learn Japanese. Really want to go there.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sí, hablo español. I love Spanish a lot, the way it sounds, the way it is written, its structure – everything. I do read translated to Spanish fiction, but, like you, I struggle when I speak it now – lack of practice.

    That’s great that you are learning Japanese as well. I am still on my “alphabets”, I must admit, but I am getting there. Actually, I will be doing some Japan-inspired posts this month, so stay tuned if you are interested 🙂

    Like

    1. Thank you! Yes, I guess so too. We are all influenced by and look up to some people, and a story can start with this concept and develop it into something spooky and even horrifying.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Woow, these books seem to have so much in common! I only skimmed through your post, as I haven’t read The Talented Mr Ripley, and I did not want to get major spoilers. Your insights are definitely interesting, the two books seem to be “sister books”. I’m adding The Talented Mr Ripley on my TBR right now 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! As I said, on the surface, these two books seem to have completely different plots – but – if you think deeply about the characters in both and about the particular details – there is much to find to compare. I hope you like The Talented Mr Ripley. It may not have Tartt’s beautiful language, but it is still a very intriguing and brainy crime thriller.

      Have you also read M. L. Rio’s If We Were Villains? Now, that book completely ripped off The Secret History – completely 🙂

      Like

  4. It is good to be influenced, as a writer, by everything you have read. It is NOT so good to copy ideas (though copyright protection generally extends only to the actual expression of an idea in a tangible medium – such as a published novel), at least not wholesale, lest you be accused of plagiarism.

    It seems that the longer the work being used as inspiration, the harder the plagiarist has to work to make a new work not be the same, because the plot of the original has its reasons for going where it does, and anything that tries to be different becomes more and more work as it reaches an end.

    So the copying shows (as in your example of The Woman in the Window vs. Saving April) to anyone paying attention. That is might not be actionable (that pesky ‘actual expression’ bit is the kicker in a court of law) doesn’t mean it’s not morally wrong.

    As an author, I know that a working plot is a strong yet flexible substrate for the words. As an extreme plotter, my plots are locked in – every step known – before the tangible expression and art and language are created (except for snippets I make sure to capture as I do structure). The plot part – the story and the reason for telling it – is so well documented in my notes that I have dated entries in searchable form going back to 2000 for the WIP. Let’s just say I would be incensed if someone ‘borrowed’ any of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good points, yes, about the length of work and moral wrongdoing. I also understand about you caring and wanting “to protect” your specific plot and structure. One may work on a particular plot their whole life and see it “borrowed” on a whim by someone else in a few minutes (theoretically speaking at least). I don’t even mind ideas being borrowed per se – no one can help it, I understand, but for me personally the spooky bit emerges when too many ideas are borrowed, but what is “too many”? Also, when a number of very specific details are borrowed in the same context it is more than strange. I mean one can easily take any book and rewrite things in their own words from there, say picking every fifth or seventh sentence until the end of each chapter, elaborating a bit, subtracting a bit, adding their own things a bit, maybe adding their own chapters here and there, too. That won’t be “actual expression” maybe, but they certainly did something much much more than being “influenced” by that book.

      Needless to say I am in total shock about The Woman in the Window and Saving April situation. The book is nothing more nor less than Saving April. That was the rewriting of a book using different words, more elaborate language. Certain additions, certain subtractions, but the ideas, structure and character prototypes are all exactly the same. I was not even “paying attention”, as you say, to any “obvious” or “less obvious” similarities, they were “jumping out” at me at such a speed and in such great number they literary just took my breath away. In my whole life I have never read any two books that were as similar as those two. The thing here is that no one “important” stood behind the virtually unheard of Sarah Denzil. She was not friends with anyone really “big” in the publishing world, in contrast to Finn. He felt he had a licence to do what he wanted and he did (and it was very far from being the first time for him doing something morally reprehensible looking at his personal history).

      Like

      1. Just like with the talented Mr. Ripley – no one looked. Because when you did, the similarities were too dense to miss.

        I must have missed how he got a look at her novel to steal from it, because I thought I looked for that information in your post, but I can’t remember. He can’t possibly claim a common copyright one: ‘it was in the ether’, otherwise known as simultaneous discovery, which sometimes happens in, say, physics. And sometimes in medicine, because it was the next discovery, built on the shoulders of giants.

        Something I will have to reread your post and other for, when I have the time.

        Fascinating. And infuriating.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Yes, I doubt Finn could rely on any common copyright because of the sheer number of similarities, their nature, and seemingly rewritten paragraphs. It is not like I picked his book up and said: “oh, it is similar to book number 1, but also to book number 2 and book number 3 and both have in common book X”. His book is not only just “similar” to Saving April, it IS Saving April. Any distant and thin common inspirations/”common sources” like “The Girl on the Train” or “Rear Window” are just nothing in comparison. Finn had as much chance penning his book without any recourse to Denzil’s as Beethoven composing Mozart’s piece “by chance”. J. K. Rowling may have been inspired by The Lord of the Rings and took a number of telling references from there, such as “The Dark Lord”, “The Chosen One” and even “Dobby/Gollum” etc. etc., but the books do remain different in plot and they both relied to a greater or a lesser extent on the same source: English folklore and mythology (and Tolkien practically copied much of the Norse folklore (if we talk about his originality)). Besides, the “chosen” baby destined to change the course of history and bring radical changes dates to Christianity.

          And, yes, obviously I don’t shout any plagiarism regarding Donna Tartt’s book and The Talented Mr Ripley. I made the comparison just for fun and obviously they remain very different books. I guess only a discerning reader can get a sense that something is afoot. And, if I may add, Tartt is certainly a much more talented and intelligent writer than Finn is (or ever hopes to become for that matter).

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Ack! No. I meant that the character of Ripley got away with things because no one looked and would believe someone was capable of what he did. Not that Tartt had anything to do with or copied Highsmith’s character/novel.

            Your point that the sheer number of similarities between two books should prove plagiarism is logical – courts are not always logical in specific cases, but yes in an overall trend. And computers make some of the comparisons faster and easier. But it will still come down in the end to humans saying “this book is practically a copy, with a few things changed, of that book.” We KNOW.

            Liked by 1 person

  5. There have been many similar situations, when a plagiarist takes a book and changes it from a, say, sweet hetero Romance into an erotic MM Romance – and the original author is aghast when someone points it out to her. The plagiarist thinks they are safe – after all, the sweet Romance writer probably won’t notice – but there’s some crossover, and someone reads both books, and the copying is so blatant they report it to the original author. Methinks I remember someone in Brazil doing a similar copy (not my genre, so I don’t keep tabs).

    Since it takes a lot of lawyer time (=money) to prove plagiarism, unless it’s flagrant and the plagiarist is very successful, nothing happens. You can be right and not willing or able to prove it. There are also many obstacles to getting any money a court might award you, and not everyone registers their copyright (if you don’t, you can’t get punitive damages).

    Big mess – and bloggers like you are the best we have for public vindication. Which then leads to journalists picking up the story… But still no consequences. Franzen is still around.

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s