Mount Alvernia High School, Newton, Massachusetts

Donna  Tartt

Katherine  Sampson 

Progressivism in the American Eugenics Movement and Its Influence on Nazi Germany

Self-Discovery Despite a Lack of Guidance in Donna Tartt’s Novels

The complicated plots of The Goldfinch and The Secret History by Donna Tartt serve to underscore the confusion and disorder that characters endure on their journeys to establish their identities. Both novels are bildungsromans in which virtually all the main characters lack any parental guidance as children, which causes them to make misguided decisions during their transition into adulthood. As a result, these characters search for direction in other ways such as adopting a temporary parental figure or turning to drugs and alcohol in order to mask their pain and guilt. In The Secret History, Richard Papen’s misguided decisions, including assisting in the murder of his friend, are based on his fatal flaw: “a morbid longing for the picturesque” (The Secret History 7). By doing so, along with the substance abuse, he distances himself from reality. In a similar way, he attempts to understand his identity through the lenses of art, beauty, and love, all of which further separates him from reality and his desire for the picturesque.

Likewise, a fatal flaw in the desire for a “superior” and “perfect” human race fueled the Eugenics Movement in the United States. Eugenics demonstrated a disregard for human life and highlighted the prejudice existing in Progressivism against minority races, women, the mentally ill, and the poor in the twentieth century. American eugenicists such as Alfred Ploetz, Katzen-Ellenbogen, and Gustav Boeters spread eugenic ideas to Germany. The American government implemented practices such as coerced sterilizations, the refusal of medical care, and marriage restrictions in order to prevent people who were considered “inferior” from reproducing. These American processes served as a chief inspiration for the enactment of Nazi policies and methods, extending even to murder in gas chambers. Mental institutions destroyed those considered weak, instead of aiding them. Doctors in institutions purposefully infected patients with milk contaminated with tuberculosis in order to “purify” society. Large financial organizations like the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Pioneer Fund supported Nazi Germany during its Eugenics Movement and enabled Hitler to commit atrocities during World War II.

Major Works Consulted:

Black, Edwin. War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003.
Race and Membership in American History: the Eugenics Movement. Brookline, MA: Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, 2002.
Tartt, Donna. The Goldfinch. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013.
--. The Secret History. New York: Knopf, 1992.
Photo Credit: Tartt, Donna. The Goldfinch. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013.