The simplest definition of a MacGuffin is that it gives the characters something to do in such a way that the plot is made around it. The term comes from the films of Alfred Hitchcock, who defined it as the mysterious object in a thriller that sets the whole story in motion. For an object in a novel to be the MacGuffin, the object must be one on which the fortunes of a character seem to rest entirely. Think Chekhov’s Gun, then, but if that gun never went off, and instead was stolen by a young man no one in the room quite remembered meeting, and so they set off to find him, and catch him before he uses it—because that gun must be returned, or all is lost. The real story and its major themes arrange themselves as the search for said object is underway. You look up from the search for the gun, and you understand something else entirely has happened. Calling it a plot device makes it seem as if it is somehow separate from the plot, something that drops the plot off at work, but it is more integral than that.
This is from my essay “Donna Tartt and the MacGuffin”, over at Tin House, in which I try to write about some of my thoughts about kinds of retrospective structure. I confined myself there to the structure of the The Goldfinch, but I had thoughts about The Secret History, too, so I thought I would put an appendix to the essay here for the interested.
Francis Abernathy from The Secret History has a cameo in The Goldfinch. He appears at a party in New York, and you hear Theo get introduced to him and Theo acknowledge him—they already know each other. It was a sweet Easter Egg to fans, and I like the idea of Tartt’s novels as belonging to a single world, though it feels to me more like Theo and Francis are in adjoining rooms in some massive hotel in Tartt’s mind.
This novel really a very different suite of rooms.
If you haven’t read The Secret History, and you fear spoilers, turn back now.
When I began reading The Goldfinch last summer, it more or less interrupted my year of reading Iris Murdoch. I have as yet unproven theory of Tartt as an heir to Iris Murdoch, who was one of her idols. Murdoch had magnificent MacGuffins, they were like Hippogriffs, really, and she had tremendous style as a writer also. Tartt isn’t as philosophically minded, but I think she is fascinated by fate in the way Iris was.
The Secret History has a MacGuffin also, a fairly conventional one: the murder at the novel’s heart, announced in the prologue along with the guilt of the narrator, Richard Papen. But what she does with it is the opposite of what we see in murder mysteries. The hunt for the murderer is what would normally be the chase. Instead, what we see is the gradual realization, on the part of the murderers, that what they did is untenable. So the first section after the prologue introduces Richard and how he found his way to college, how he was inducted into a clique of Classics students on campus and in the process, became the perfect person for Henry, the murderer in chief of that group, to use for his purposes. Richard first feels inducted, special, chosen—and then discovers he is special, to the extent that he can only go forward with the plan Henry has for them, including the murder, not knowing he is meant to be the patsy.
After the first half makes its way to the murder, the second runs from it, to the end.
In each half–and the novel is almost perfectly bisected–the narrator is always on the outside of the next part of the mystery before then being brought into the inside of it, where he finds the next mystery, and so on, until he reaches the very sad endgame, the destruction, more or less, of the group’s fates. In the first half, the murderers’ victim, their mutual friend Bunny, seems insufferable, such that we are nearly rooting for him to at least suffer some come-uppance. In the second, though, the full horror of what’s been done to him, and the truth of Bunny’s humanity, descends into the novel with his death, and the realization that none of them really will be spared, even if they are never discovered by ‘authorities’, arrives. They haven’t just killed Bunny–they’ve ruined themselves too. Given the murder is known from the beginning, the suspense is in watching to see how they’ll survive it, if they do at all. We know that Richard, the narrator, survives, as the keeper of the story, as all narrators have the misfortune of doing. The Prologue is the gate, Part I is the leadup, Part II is the lead-away, and the Epilogue takes us into the afterlife, in Henry’s case, quite literally.
At each moment, Tartt tells us something that is coming, and then how it happened, and each event trades off to a new one, but she disguises this in shaggy conversations about the classics, art, life, drugs, sex, money, and class, all of which eventually reveal themselves to have been the more or less concise corridors you didn’t know you were traveling, into the sharp turns of the plot. Even the dreams of Bunny and Henry are beautiful, and perfectly handled, with Henry’s presence in the dream at the end being sublime, as ending and dream both.
Was it a literary thriller then? It was, to the extent that ‘literary’ is defined as producing insight into the human condition. The mystery was how you could convince yourself you could commit a murder and live with yourself afterward—and then, how you would not.
In both novels, however, we are with the character who took the missing thing. We are having this story from the point of view of the MacGuffin.