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The Secret History - Characters - Richard Papen

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Richard in 'The Secret History" lives on for me in a more practical way than any character I ever wrote, however. Richard’s voice, to start with, was an invented voice, constructed for the purposes of the story I wanted to tell, but because I spent so many years when I was young writing almost exclusively in Richard’s voice, his narration ended up influencing my own writing voice pretty profoundly.
Donna Tartt answers 11 questions about 'The Secret History'. (2022, December 20). Elena Nicolaou. Today.

RICHARD (m) "brave power" from Germanic ric "power, rule" and hard "brave, hardy". The Normans introduced this name to Britain. It was borne by three kings of England including Richard the Lionheart, leader of the Third Crusade in the 12th century. Two German opera composers, Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, have also had this name.

JOHN (m) "Hebrew. God is Gracious, Merciful".

Favorite Excerpts

Does such a thing as "the fatal flaw," that shadowy 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.

It was with something of a shock that I saw it for the first time - a white room with big north-facing windows, monkish and bare, with scarred oak floors and a ceiling slanted like a garret's.

On my first night there, I sat on the bed during the twilight while the walls went slowly from gray to gold to black, listening to a soprano's voice climb dizzily up and down somewhere at the other end of the hall until at last the light was completely gone, and the faraway soprano spiraled on and on in the darkness like some angel of death, and I can't remember the air ever seeming as high and cold and rarefied as it was that night...

Trees creaking with apples, fallen apples red on the grass beneath, the heavy sweet smell of them rotting on the ground and the steady thrumming of wasps around them.

Commons clock tower: ivied brick, white spire, spellbound in the hazy distance. The shock of first seeing a birch tree at night, rising up in the dark as cool and slim as a ghost.

And the nights, bigger than imagining: black and gusty and enormous, disordered and wild with stars.


I am very fond of Richard as a character - I find it impossible not to think of him without affection. Despite the fact that he drinks like a fish and does say some pretty hilarious things when under the influence of alcohol, this is a highly intelligent and perceptive character. I understood exactly what he meant when describing the concept of pur and the strange light that permeates Homer's landscapes, for the simple reason that I see it too when I read the Classics. On top of all this, he's also painfully human.
- Donatella

5:46 am, thursday, may 4, 2006
I adored Richard. He amused me. I thought it was hysterical that every time he visited with another character the drunk and hungover Charles or Francis would see him and say something along the lines of "/You/. What are /you/ doing here." Poor Richard. I almost had a feeling he wasn't telling us something.

- mel

4:24 pm, friday, march 24, 2006
I didn't like Richard all that much. He was simply the narrator, and honestly, narrators are kind of boring. A typical narrator doesn't have many biased views, which I thought definitely worked for this book. The narration would not have worked if it was from the point of view of Charles, for instance. He's too much of an interesting character that contributes a lot to the plot, and having him be the narrator would mean biased views, making the book less enjoyable. What I like about the book is the ability to form your own opinions on the characters and the theme without having them being fed to you. Richard was simply that character that was fascinated by everything since he was so boring. I mean, the whole first pages are about how boring he is and how he wihes he could be interesting. Eh, who could blame him? I think the reason he bugs me so much is because he kind of reminds me of me... I don't like characters that remind me of me.

- Mitchester

8:27 pm, monday, october 10, 2005
he reminds me of Holden Caulfield
- Tim

8:08 pm, sunday, september 25, 2005
Richard was... me. I totally identified with him. Like him, I come from a culturally barren home, from parents utterly absorbed in their own petty troubles and pleasures. Like Richard I longed with an almost physical longing for Art and Beauty. Like Richard I am essentially a onlooker, a follower, gifted enough to recognise genius in others. It came as quite a shock to see suddenly the other side of the coin (ie: Bunny's emotional anguish) and to realise that I, meself, might actually do as Richard did if it was me, standing on that ledge. Scary to learn so much about one self from a character from a book. Wonderful as well.

- Marion

4:48 am, wednesday, september 14, 2005
i think he was brilliant

7:58 am, sunday, september 4, 2005
Why Donna tell like a boy(Richard) in TSH?
BTW I love Camilla!!!
- Barbora Jitka Soukupová

1:45 pm, tuesday, august 16, 2005
Hmm, someone earlier on commented that a comparison could be drawn between Richard and Charles from Brideshead Revisted. Sebastian and the rest of the Marchmains turned to Charles as they thought him something of a saviour-and charming in his own right. I'm not sure if any of our "deerslayers" saw much in Richard but an outsider with and outsider's perspective (valuable when one is emersed in so exclusive a group) and a willingness to do as asked. Richard is intriguing, but, I find, falls short of the other characters. Even knowing his background it is hard to pity Richard, hard to cheer him on. Can anyone truly say that they wanted nothing more then to see him happy? I think that those with an overwhelming fondness for the narrator are guilty of projecting themselves into the book through the gap he leaves.
- sybaryte

2:49 pm, tuesday, july 19, 2005
I thought Richard was a very sympathetic character. He gives us perceptive pictures of the others. He is drawn into the action like many another college student has been. Of the Greek clique, he was the most typical, and, in that sense, believable, of the group.
- zydecogirl

3:52 am, tuesday, june 14, 2005
Re: below. When he fills out the form to join Hampden College at the beginning of the first chapter, he writes his full name - 'John Richard Papen'.

- Anna

5:50 am, thursday, june 9, 2005
In response to gaspard, the other perfect narrator was himself in "Wuthering Heights."
- beverly

5:42 pm, sunday, june 5, 2005
it says his name is john at the very beginning, in the first, oh, 10 pages or so? when he's filling out the forms to apply to Hampden.

- rachel

12:45 am, sunday, may 22, 2005
RE: below - Are you sure? Could you tell me where in the book it says that his name is John? Is there an explanation as to why he goes by Richard?

- iheartyossarian

5:50 pm, wednesday, february 2, 2005
i just thought i would point out that there is no mention here of the fact that Richard's real name is actually John. Surely there ought to be a definition of his real name, rather than (or as well as) his middle...?

- Eve

11:19 am, sunday, january 16, 2005
Please, God, no damn movie!
This book is something so rare - a work of fiction that brings itself to life in the minds eye in such an exquisite way, that I couldn't bear to see it massacred by the cretins in the hollywood movie business.

6:31 am, tuesday, december 21, 2004
i love richard

11:55 pm, tuesday, december 7, 2004
I think Richard is far too less a personality at the beginning so he easily is caught by the fishnet of the strange and mysterious group. which makes him a victim at the end as well of course.
- Edwin

12:21 am, sunday, october 31, 2004
In response to the post:
"To me, Richard is the perfect narrative voice: highly perceptive and yet unable to act at all. I wonder if anyone has a better example of these two qualities within literature?..."

Easy: Hamlet
- Kelly Bird

3:13 pm, sunday, october 24, 2004
I felt very sad for Richard because his parents have never cherished him which is why he has a deep desire to be something more and to fit in. It has also left him emotionally cold to an extent. His love of Camilla is unrequited, sadly though he can't become so close to her because his role in the book is as spectator.
- litgirl

8:09 pm, thursday, august 5, 2004
I viewed his character as being very ironic, but in a detached way. A bit like Nick Caraway from "The Great Gatsby." If there ever were a movie version, I see someone with more humor, and a greater sense of irony than I perceive in Joshua Jackson. I think Adam Brody could be good, especially in the scenes were Richard uses cocaine.
- iheartyossarian

12:40 am, sunday, june 13, 2004
Richard Papen is surely a character with the best intentions. But he is outgunned by just about everyone else in the clique. Even Charles is brighter than him. The poor boy is out of his league. Fate blesses him with an experience bound to overshadow every other story in his life. I almost feel pity for him, but also envy him. He remains a peasant, quite unsophisticated, a low fellow, a prosaic personality of base stock both spiritually and socially, with provincial attitudes who is transformed by his experience into someone who is, at least, more perceptive. His character is so incredibly low-class and unexceptional that I am sure Dona Tartt intended this as a narrative ploy to draw the reader into the story. Though a decoy, at the end he is able to capture something of the tragedy he lived through, but that does not redeem him. The only thing that makes him interesting is that he is the narrator, the only person who can reveal the secret history.

I dislike the abject idea of transferring this plot to a film but it is going to Jackson would do for the part and so would Jake Gyllenhaal. They both have this ability to play straightforward but essentially mediocre people. Hayden Christensen is an outsider.
- justus lipsius

9:23 am, monday, may 31, 2004
it's strange, but richard reminds me of mr meursault. his very calm reaction to everything, this passiveness. i liked him. he is a nice break from all the extreme mystery of the other characters.
- daria

2:21 pm, monday, march 8, 2004
Many people didn't like Richard because they thought he was quite simple, but I don't think so. He reminds me very much of Charles from Brideshead Revisited, who's also the narrator. I think he's quite a complex character, one of my favourites.

- Guinevere Darcy

11:43 am, tuesday, january 20, 2004
I could relate to Richard the most of all the characters. He was an outsider longing to belong and could never quite be one of them. I think in the end he realised this is how it had to be which shattered his romanticised view of the way he thought his life would turn out once he befriended the group. In other words massive reality check.
- Beck

2:00 am, monday, december 29, 2003
For those of you who could not grasp the deepness of Richards personality.
I fell the same way towards you as Richard did to the Mob.
- Arman

5:29 pm, thursday, november 27, 2003
I think Richard is a snob and a wannabe. He doesn't really care about the other characters; he just uses them to validate himself. I am heartbroken at the attitude Richard has towards his ordinary, working-class parents. No wonder they are retreating from him more and more! The more I learned about Richard, the more I can relate to why his parents feel the way they do towards him. Richard thinks he's better than his parents, he thinks he's better than all ordinary people. He just hangs with these snobs because he thinks he's better than everyone else.

- Meribeth

12:16 am, thursday, november 20, 2003
I thought he was annoying but necessary. I would have liked to see a more interesting and fleshed-out narrator, but I realize why Donna Tartt wrote Richard the way she did. Someone else mentioned that if Francis told the story, he'd be too busy describing his nervous breakdowns to really narrate. I think this is also true of the other characters--they are too caught up in their own side of the story to give a complete account. The only solution is to create a character like Richard, who never really does anything himself, and therefore is in a prime position to tell what is happening to the others. He is more an observer than a real participant.

Also, as for Richard, even though he was accepted into the Greek group, I never got the sense that the other characters truly liked or cared about him. He seemed like a pawn, or just a latecomer. A perfect example of this is at the end of the story, when Richard tells everyone he's been shot, which is pretty serious--and no one really notices him. or cares.

- Killashandra

4:27 pm, friday, september 5, 2003
There are definite parallels between Richard and Nick from The Great Gatsby. I think that Richard is never quite as into the group as the others, and that is why his life is the only one that stays fully intact by the end of the novel.

- r

7:50 am, sunday, august 3, 2003
From the very beginning of the book Richard clearly appeared as a tool in the hands of the author, a tool that was absolutely necessary for an intimate, 1st person narrative. Without him, Donna Tartt wouldn't have been able to give such a close, personal account of the story. She needed an insider, someone that was a witness to the secret, horrible "history". Richard was such a flat, submissive character, that at some points he didn't even look real. He took little initiative; he did all the favors of the others in the group whenever they asked. He's very much like Nick Caraway from The Great Gatsby and this is how he should be regarded: just the bystander that passively (more or less) witnesses the events and then later on writes about them. He is a very likable character, the only sane character in the book actually, but I sort of feel pity for him, for his decisions and for his weakness. He was too weak; there were times when he might have said "no". But then, who would've told the story?
- Monica

5:08 am, sunday, august 3, 2003
Richard was my favourite character because he retained his sense of sanity. He's very human- plagued by his sense of insecurity and inadequacy but at the same time mature and perceptive. Richard is like a lot of us- caught up in the glamour and the beauty of youth, college, bohemian life- without ever thinking about it deeply enough until it's all over and you're left wondering....
- deepa

12:56 am, wednesday, may 28, 2003
Richard didn't have much of a personality and merely latched onto other people; therefore his presence didn't really get in the way of telling the story. I had the impression Richard was only there as a vehicle for describing other people and actions. Can you imagine Francis being the narrator? He would have been describing his palpitations the whole time. Richard's character was essentially dull but was necessary to tell the story. Despite all of Richard's weaknesses I found him the most likeable. He was so desperate to be accepted by his 'friends'; he'd have done anything (and did). Pathetic, but somehow endearing. He was the most loyal and faithful of the group, and least selfish. Everyone was able to trust him, and everyone confided in him. The moment at the end of the book when Charles called Richard a bastard, mistakenly thinking he'd betrayed him - I found that upsetting. I wanted Richard to be liked and appreciated by the others.
- Cheryl

5:16 pm, sunday, may 18, 2003
Richard seems is less freak than the rest that is why he manages to survive and go on with his life. He is the only one that has a firm grasp of reality.
- Irene

7:46 pm, sunday, february 16, 2003
I found Richard very cold and difficult to care about.
- Peggy Jackson

12:49 am, sunday, february 2, 2003
Richard was the uneasy product of his unsatisfactory upbringing...his longings...his desire to be something more. Intellectually, he saw himself as very different from his distant, disappointing parents, his mediocre social status,and plebian California surroundings. Due to his lack of Self and immaturity, he became convinced that he could only find these things by role playing and latching onto places and people he found alluring; those which he was certain contained what he felt he lacked. Richard may have grown out of this and actually developed the confidence to accept himself, had he not gotten into the situation he did in the very first months of his planned transformation. The murders and aftermath effectively interrupted this already emotionally stunted and damaged man...
- Judy

9:03 pm, friday, january 24, 2003
I felt that he was too eager to join the elite Greek group. As he said himself, he was too close to them to see their characters clearly and objectively.
- Just Sarah

5:28 am, monday, december 30, 2002
To me, Richard ist the perfect narrative voice: highly perceptive and yet unable to act at all. I wonder if anyone has a better example of these two qualities within literature?..

4:42 pm, friday, december 27, 2002
His presence was little more than that of a ghostly observer -- he very rarely exhibited any signs of morality, even as he points out the lack of it in others.
- Sarah Jane

3:44 pm, sunday, december 1, 2002
Percipient, feminine, broad voice but emotionally shallow
- Bob Olsen

4:04 pm, monday, november 25, 2002
i wondered how much of him was Ms. Tartt, herself

- anon

4:46 pm, saturday, november 23, 2002
His narration reminds me alot of Nick from the Great Gastby but I feel that I do not know enough about him.

12:39 am, thursday, november 21, 2002
I thought he was a very interesting narrator: he seemed to say it all, yet there were things he hid... Richard's reluctance?

- Claudine