LitCrit: Dark Academia

Dark Academia novels are some of my personal favourite novels, they are novels that centre on an academic setting. The term Dark Academia, is an unofficial name for the genre, as they, at least in literature, are called campus novels or academic novels.

Dark Academia novels contain elements of both satire and tragedy, and they tend to focus on the humanities and liberal arts, these tend to play a role as the passions of the main characters, which ends up driving them too far. The genre has a tendency to over-romantizice a liberal arts education, and it also generally disregards poc, women, lgbt+ and more. It has in many ways been centred a lot on straight white men, with women playing the role of an innocent, and the token gay man, playing the role of comic relief, and a way for the main character to experiment.

Some of the common tropes found in Dark Academia are:

  • Murder and death
    • These are usually the way in which the author brings forth the actual dark part of Dark Academia.
  • Strong friendship
    • These strong friendships are usually used as a motivator for the murder in some way, whether it be a positive or a negative friendship.
  • An adult authority figure is usually the opponent
    • This opponent also shows the opponent that is the societal norms, as this is also often a huge part of what the main character is fighting against.
  • Socialclass differences
    • The main character often comes from a working class family, while the majority of the peers come from wealthy families. This creates an inert need for the main character to please their peers, as they fear not fitting in.

As Dark Academia takes place in a campus setting, the stories are usually coming of age novels, that tell the story of how one event changed the life of the main character.

When most people think of Dark Academia they think of The Secret History , it basically fosters the genre and it is the home for many of the tropes talked about previously, it introduces the event right at the start, the murder of Bunny. This distinguishes the genre from other mystery and thriller novels, as those are usually who-dun-it, the secret history introduced the why-dun-it instead. This creates a thriller based more in the minds of the characters, and not so much in the actual crime committed.

The Secret History draws in many ways on the classical world, the main characters in the novel are all students at a liberal arts college, who study classics. This theme of classics also moves into the composition of the novel, as it is in some ways draws on Aristotle’s poetics.

In many ways one can say that the genre of Dark Academia is based in tragedy. In tragedies and in the “tragic vision” there are seven elements, those being:

  • The conclusion is catastrophic.
    • The ending is perceived as the concluding phase of a downward movement. And the ending is  unhappy as it results in the hero’s or heroine’s fall from fortune and consequent isolation from society.
  • The catastrophic conclusion will seem inevitable.
    • To the audience of a tragedy, the catastrophe will seem inevitable. Whether grounded in fate or nemesis, accident or chance, the operating forces assume the function of a distant power.
  • It occurs, ultimately, because of the human limitations of the protagonist.
    • Ultimately, the instances that we find in tragedy happen because of powerlessness, of undeniable human limitations.
  • The protagonist suffers terribly.
    • It is because of the human limitations that suffering becomes basic to the tragic vision snd the tragedies testify to suffering as an enduring.
  • The protagonist’s suffering often seems disproportionate to his or her culpability.
    • It is because of the human limitations that suffering also becomes basic to the tragic vision
  • Yet the suffering is usually redemptive, bringing out the noblest of human capacities for learning.
    • Despite the inevitable catastrophe, the human limitation, the disproportionate suffering, the tragic vision implies that suffering can call forth human potentialities, can clarify human capacities, and that often there is a learning process that the experience of suffering induces.
  • The suffering is also redemptive in bringing out the capacity for accepting moral responsibility.
    • Tragic protagonists more frequently have an active role, one which exposes not only their errors of judgment, their flaws, their own conscious or unwitting contribution to the tragic situation, but which also suggests their potentialities to endure or survive suffering, and to attain a complex view of moral responsibility

These seven elements can roughly be used to describe novels in this genre, as many of them use tropes and archetypes from tragedies. One must always be wary and critical of these theories and models used to sum up entire genres of fiction, as it is never possible to sum up something so diverse and different with just seven elements, but it is a fun thing to analyse the Dark Academia novel with, and to see just how closely they resemble the classic tragedies.

Books in the Dark Academia genre, i have not read all these books but they are books which have been categorized as Dark Academia multiple times:

On the day Oliver Marks is released from jail, the man who put him there is waiting at the door. Detective Colborne wants to know the truth, and after ten years, Oliver is finally ready to tell it.

Ten years ago: Oliver is one of seven young Shakespearean actors at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, a place of keen ambition and fierce competition. In this secluded world of firelight and leather-bound books, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingénue, extra. But in their fourth and final year, the balance of power begins to shift, good-natured rivalries turn ugly, and on opening night real violence invades the students’ world of make believe. In the morning, the fourth-years find themselves facing their very own tragedy, and their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, each other, and themselves that they are innocent.

‘What is more important, that Caesar is assassinated or that he is assassinated by his intimate friends? … That,’ Frederick said, ‘is where the tragedy is.’

Set at a small affluent liberal-arts college in New England eighties, The Rules of Attraction is a startlingly funny, kaleidoscopic novel about three students with no plans for the future—or even the present—who become entangled in a curious romantic triangle. Bret Easton Ellis trains his incisive gaze on the kids at self-consciously bohemian Camden College and treats their sexual posturings and agonies with a mixture of acrid hilarity and compassion while exposing the moral vacuum at the center of their lives.

No one will ever know anyone. We just have to deal with each other. You’re not ever gonna know me.

Flannery Culp wants you to know the whole story of her spectacularly awful senior year. Tyrants, perverts, tragic crushes, gossip, cruel jokes, and the hallucinatory effects of absinthe — Flannery and the seven other friends in the Basic Eight have suffered through it all. But now, on tabloid television, they’re calling Flannery a murderer, which is a total lie. It’s true that high school can be so stressful sometimes. And it’s true that sometimes a girl just has to kill someone. But Flannery wants you to know that she’s not a murderer at all — she’s a murderess.

She had the look in her eye when you kick and kick at the door and it doesn’t open, when you write a boy letters and letters and he never loves you, not ‘til the day he dies. Not even then.

Twenty years ago, Jane Hudson fled the Heart Lake School for Girls in the Adirondacks after a terrible tragedy. The week before her graduation, in that sheltered wonderland, three lives were taken, all victims of suicide. Only Jane was left to carry the burden of a mystery that has stayed hidden in the depths of Heart Lake for more than two decades. Now Jane has returned to the school as a Latin teacher, recently separated and hoping to make a fresh start with her young daughter. But ominous messages from the past dredge up forgotten memories. And young, troubled girls are beginning to die again–as piece by piece the shattering truth slowly floats to the surface. . . .

Yes, he had been preoccupied, but hadn’t that been what I was looking for–someone who wouldn’t pay too much attention, someone who wouldn’t look at me to closely?


2 thoughts on “LitCrit: Dark Academia

  1. Pingback: My 2018 in Books – blackhholesbooks

  2. Oh my gosh… thank you so much! I JUST finished re-reading The Secret History today, saw your tweet to Victoria Schwab linking this post, started reading it and thought “OMG literally The Secret History” and then it was your first example!! Haha. I couldn’t get over Richard’s creepy view of Camilla when I read the book this time (first time I read it was 5 years ago so I don’t even remember what I thought of it then). Especially toward the end, where they’re in his room and he gets a sudden urge to grab her and attack was that?? That moment (and some others throughout the book) made me wonder if it Donna Tartt was alluding to some Greek history/mythology that I didn’t know about, or was just trying to express how flawed Richard was, or what? But it seemed to romanticize this weird violent streak in him…I didn’t know what to think! Anyway, thanks again for this write-up and I’m definitely putting some of the other books on my to-read list.


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