It is, of course, difficult to impose order or reason upon the murder of a nine year old. Yet this is what, twelve years after her brother Robin was found hanging from a tree in his own back yard, Harriet Cleve Dufresnes seeks to do. The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt, author of The Secret History, follows the smart and adventurous twelve-year-old, Harriet, as she devotes her summer to finding and punishing her brother’s mysterious killer. The novel presents various options for the pursuit of meaning, although it does not necessarily deal with them all satisfactorily. While some frustration—bits of plot left unresolved and the failure of Harriet’s quest—is intentional, the book also leaves the reader unfulfilled precisely because the failure to find, or make, meaning is discomforting without being particularly compelling.
Harriet’s family had encountered their share of difficulties over the years, but they had managed to absorb them all through story telling. They would recount, in groups, how they remembered events happening. Over the years the stories solidified and became indisputably accurate. Their memories did not capture events as they occurred; instead, they created a fictionalized account that was able to bring about order where it otherwise did not exist. The fictionalization of history was the way the Cleve family kept a sense of order amidst the chaos of the world.
One of the most important elements of the family’s replacement of fact with fictional narrative is that it is a social activity. Having an audience, storytellers seek to be dramatic, a thing only possible if some order is imposed upon the story by its author. Additionally, that they are social allows the story to include facts that could not be known by any individual. That is, the individuals can extend beyond supplementing their own information with that learned by other people. Instead, the “facts” of the account do not always have explicit attribution, and so they can come to float above the subjectivity and limitation of the individual. Such mythologizing makes it possible to incorporate into the story items, even those no human being could possibly know, that are necessary for creating order. It also causes people to forget those facts which confound the narrative.
This mechanism fails in the case of Robin’s murder, but no explanation for this fact apart from the sheer unpleasantness of (the topic) discussing it is p r o f f e r e d . While this is probably sufficient for the novel, it is unfortunate that no more attention is paid to remembering through myth. First of all, this mechanism reflects on the act of writing itself, and so would be applicable to Tartt and the novel as a whole. Secondly, this mechanism carries the strong implication that no memory is genuine. That is, each act of committing a thing to memory, or indeed of consciously remembering an event later, changes the event. Remembering, then, is an act of fictionalizing, an act of writing. The image of old ladies spinning a story they’ve told countless times does seem to capture something about human memory, and it could be more powerful were Tartt to spend more time on it.
Harriet, then, inherited a sense of disorder that she seeks to remedy. She is at a loss when trying to devise a list of goals for herself, and so she must devise a plan. And what is a plan but an organizing principle, a way to order the world and oneself? Symbolically, then, Harriet’s effort to set goals is an effort to find order and meaning. And so, she sets her sites on resolving the one event that had confounded her whole family, the one that had caused her life to be so disordered to this point. She would find out who had killed her brother, and she would see to it that the murderer was punished.
Harriet’s desire for justice, or more precisely for revenge, emerges as a way to make sense of Robin’s death. Without punishment, the event seems incomplete, and so disordered. Finding and killing the murderer would remedy this. But Harriet fails for two reasons. First of all, nobody knows who was responsible for Robin’s death. Harriet believes Danny Ratliff to be the murderer, as this is who her housekeeper Ida thinks responsible. But the reader never really buys into that theory. Secondly, Harriet does not feel relieved even when she thinks Danny is dead. Even if he is guilty, believing him to be punished does not add order but only furthers the sense in Harriet that there is no meaning to all this suffering and death. This, presumably, is where Tartt hopes to reject revenge as a way to order the world. It seems to reduce to the, by now hackneyed, “cycle of violence.” However, the reader never really gets beyond the fact that Danny is not the killer, and a desire for can categorize things as good and evil, and we can love someone else and build our understanding of the world around them. But none of this gets to an objective meaning, a metaphysical order. And so, the book leaves us unsatisfied. We do not know who killed Robin. We don’t know what will come of the lawsuit against Edie, or what Allison’s dream about Harriet was. The novel, like life, ends with many questions left unanswered.
That said, the dissatisfaction comes from our sense that the questions should be answered. The reader is not convinced that there is no metaphysical order to the universe. The desire to know order is frustrated, but that does not damn the enterprise. It is unclear whether this is intentional or whether it is a consequence of Tartt’s inability to fully convince the reader. Sure, we don’t remember events exactly as they happened. But, we experience the world subjectively anyway — this is not as troubling as it might at first seem. So, too, can justice’s inadequacy be attributed solely to epistemological failings. The reader can easily chalk up the failure of justice to the inability to determine who killed Robin. And, while completely defining the world around another person may seem incomplete, there is little doubt it can be an improvement — that it is possible to love a person precisely because that person is better. Tartt does not demonstrate that, objectively, there is no order. She merely establishes that it is hard for us to understand order, not that it does not exist. That we still want meaning and order, and that we still think it can be found, is evident in the desire for another chapter of The Little Friend, a true conclusion of the sort we would write into the narrative were it our memory instead of Tartt’s creation.
William Rogel is a Senior in Berkeley College.