‘Babel’ by R.F. Kuang: A successful thematic response to ‘The Secret History’

Babel was one of the most highly anticipated books of 2022, and now that we’ve sat with it for a moment, let’s explore whether beloved author R.F. Kuang succeeded in responding to the new-age classic The Secret History by Donna Tartt, and what exactly Babel adds to the conversation.

Spoiler warning: This article contains major spoilers for both The Secret History and Babel.

There is a paradox in the reality that Babel, a fantasy book, is set in the 1830s and The Secret History in the 1980s, and yet it is the latter that exists in an imaginary world where the West is completely devoid of people of color. The cause of this paradox is quite easy to ascertain, as Babel was published in 2022, while The Secret History hit shelves in 1997. Our cultural awareness and standards for diversity were remarkably different in the late ‘90s; something that is more reflective of the realities of systemic racism and other forms of xenophobia rather than the malleability of morality and equality. In fact, both books are concerned with whether morality is changeable from decade to decade or society to society, and specifically, it is something the respective main characters wrestle with, though they find themselves on different sides of the argument once they reach their conclusions.

While both The Secret History and Babel are quintessential dark academia novels set in posh higher education institutions, they contain within them different narratives. The former is a reverse murder mystery, where on the opening page the narrator and primary protagonist Richard tells us they killed their friend Bunny in college, and then we learn why, how, and what exactly he did about it. The central group contains five young adults, Henry, Bunny, Francis, Charles, Camilla, and Richard, who are studying at Hampden College because it is accommodating of their eccentricities. They are classics majors turned amateur cultists who end up relying on Plato to justify some truly horrific acts. Babel, on the other hand, follows a more lateral timeline. We meet the protagonist Robin as a child in Camden, China, and then see him taken from China, trained as a translator, and sent to school at Babel where his propensity for language will be used to further the English empire and colonize his home country and others like it. In this fictional 1830s England, the British use silver bars that are somewhere between magic, linguistics, and science to colonize, and they need translators to operate them, making Robin and his friends Ramy, Letty, and Vic invaluable.

Before exploring the ways in which the themes of these stories coincide and contradict one another, we must first ask ourselves why we are viewing them in conversation to begin with. They are both dark academia novels, but there are more substantial reasons, too. These novels both created a massive cultural impact that ensures the ideologies within will have a concrete impact on readers. The Secret History, having had a longer shelf life, has already given us a considerable view of what its legacy will be, but Babel, in just the few short months since it was published, has already begun making its mark. Of course, we do not compare every impactful book that hits store shelves. Instead, the most convincing reason comes from the author of Babel herself, who has said this book was written as a “thematic response” to The Secret History. Although published decades apart by authors with a plethora of differences and a curious amount of similarities, it is by design that we compare them. They were written to be in conversation with one another.

You could argue that both stories have a central theme of morality and personal responsibility, but this does a disservice to our discussion to pretend these novels are the same in a fundamental way. The Secret History reckons with morality, but it is more so an exploration of what happens when you let beauty blind you to all else. We find our narrator having an internal discussion about this very concept on the opening page: “And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.” Here, Richard is telling us that he has realized his fatal flaw, revealing to us the central theme of this novel. Of course, there are layers of class and elitism, betrayal and attraction, and visceral survival instincts mixed in, but all point towards Richard’s decision to allow himself to be so swept up in aesthetics that he doesn’t notice the horrors beneath the pretty façade.

babel book review
Babel, on the other hand, has more ambitious themes to contend with. There are arguments to be made that Babel’s most central theme is the harm of colonization, or the act of translation as a weapon to steal from cultures by forcing everything of value into English, or how colonial identities such as gender and race determine our social power, but really these are all the plot points in which we explore the theme. The beating heart within this story is survival. This is not a selfish and uncomplicated version of survival that only protects one’s own interests, but rather an evaluation of how to survive as communities, as cultures. Babel asks questions about whether it is personal or communal interest that should rule us. We see the characters choose between assimilation for their own survival and revolution for the survival of their community. The through line here is that these are both moral questions, etched in gray areas, which force us to look inside ourselves to see what kind of decisions we can live with. Both books present a more comfortable future at the cost of morals and dare our characters to decide whether they value humanity enough to rebel.

While both Babel and The Secret History reckon with the gray areas of morality, they present decidedly different stakes. The Secret History is an insular novel that makes you forget a world outside of the fictional Hampden College exists, and with it, any real consequences. In the real world, however, there is a Robin Swift and a Ramy Mizra and a Victoire DeGraves and even a Letty Price to bear the cost of such revelries as seen in The Secret History’s. This creates an atmosphere where the protagonist Richard is weighing whether revealing several murder plots is more important than protecting his friends, rather than considering the impacts of his actions that ripple out much farther than he could imagine. It becomes a question of whether Richard, as an individual, can live with what he and his friends have done. And this seems to bother Richard the most; not that lives were ended at his and friends’ hands, but that he has to reckon with it at all. Richard does not wish for the resurrection of their victims, but instead longs for life at Hampden to return to a time where hard truths were still hidden beneath beauty so he can fall back into blissful ignorance. Babel, on the other hand, is concerned with toppling social hierarchies, and so the question becomes how much our protagonist Robin is willing to give up individually to serve a higher purpose. We see each of our main characters face a choice of whether personal preservation or a more equitable future is more important to them. Our narrator, Robin, decides there is nothing in this current society for him, and so makes the ultimate sacrifice for the revolution.

We see the two protagonists of these stories make starkly different, almost opposite, decisions. Yet, they are not as different as one might expect when considering their final choices. Both Richard and Robin, despite being protagonists, are pulled along for much of the story. They are not charismatic leaders or boundary pushers; they just want to survive by blending into their environments. They both fall for the allure of the institutions they find themselves in, caught up in the esteem it will give them because they’ve never felt particularly important as individuals. They are even both willing to cut away parts of their identity to further integrate, as we see Richard forsake his lower-class upbringing and Robin trade his Chinese birth name for something more English. So what is the fundamental difference between these two characters that sends them down such vastly different paths? Some of it can be attributed to the people surrounding them. Richard’s friend group is so wealthy, they all seem to be hopelessly sick with affluenza, and therefore incapable of acknowledging consequences. They are the very esteem with which Richard is intoxicated, and so he is willing to do what is necessary to keep them, because his life is desperately lonely and boring without his circle of friends. Robin’s community is the opposite in almost every way. We see the times where Robin loses ground in his struggle with what is right versus what is convenient and how it elicits feelings of betrayal from his friends because they have just as much to lose as he does. Ultimately, like Richard, Robin’s friends are the reason behind the choice he makes, only in the opposite sense. Eventually, Robin comes to love his friends so dearly that he feels there is nothing for him without them, and because the world they are currently living in is not habitable for them, he is willing to sacrifice everything.

I would wager that race and other marginalized identities play a large role in the differing decisions between these protagonists. Richard may be poor, but he is a white man, and so with some new clothes and a glass of champagne in hand, he can fully assimilate into the highest class of society. Robin is half Chinese, meaning that anyone who looks closely at him while he lives in Oxford sees him as other. No amount of moral compromise will allow Robin to belong, and once he learns that lesson, his worldview fundamentally shifts. The West romanticizes the idea of making something of yourself, as we’ve all heard older white men tell us to ‘pull ourselves up by our bootstraps’ at one time or another, but the truth is that only people like Richard have that kind of opportunity. For Robin and his friends Ramy, Vic, and Letty, they will never be more than a resource to be exploited.

We even see gender and sexuality play a prominent role in The Secret History. The Hampden College friend group is made up of four men and one woman, all of whom are white, but there is a marked difference in the way each of them interact with Camilla compared to each other. Camilla finds herself the object of each of their affections at different points and is forced to turn down their romantic advances multiple times. She is even the victim of incestual assault at the hands of her twin brother. Another member of the Hampden group is gay, but we see Francis downplay his sexuality and make almost joking passes at other men to be on the right side of the homophobic taunts about him being predatory. However, the survival strategy adapted by Richard in response to his poverty, Camilla in response to her womanhood, and Francis in response to his queerness is denial. They all underplay their marginalized identities to get as close to being a cis straight white rich man as they can. This creates a culture contrary to our Oxford cohort, where they challenge each other to take pride in their various identities. We even see them teach each other, as Vic and Letty do with Ramy with regard to women’s rights. All three characters of color consistently try to educate Letty, a white woman, on matters of race and colonization, and even though the lessons never stick, the fact that each of them continues to speak up changes their cohort’s culture.

I am not advocating for the embracing of one of these novels at the expense of the other, but if Kuang’s goal in writing Babel was to open up the world of The Secret History to everyone who was originally excluded, and to respond to its shortcomings, she certainly succeeded. Babel, like The Secret History, is thought-provoking, but it focuses on the moral questions we will face today rather than abstract philosophies that rarely impact us outside a liberal arts classroom. I think Babel’s greatest strength is that its protagonist Robin is not unlike his predecessor Richard, which only shows us that Richard was capable of making a different decision all along.

‘Babel’ published on August 23, 2022

Buy Babel by R.F. Kuang from HarperCollins, Bookshop.org, Book Depository, or Amazon. You can also add it to your Goodreads list.

This article was written by Subjectify contributor Megan Peterson. Look for more recommendations like this Babel book review on our books page.