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  AND THE SECRET HISTORY  ***
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 demeanour…his 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  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?