I Am Charlotte Simmons
by Tom Wolfe
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 646 pp. $28.95
When the heroine of I Am Charlotte Simmons—a smart, beautiful, small-town girl—sits down to write her mother a letter about freshman life in “Dupont University,” it takes her hours to produce a “long, well-intentioned lie.” What Charlotte Simmons can’t bring herself to reveal, author Tom Wolfe has already spelled out in several hundred pages of details that add up to a parent’s worst nightmare.
So graphic is Wolfe’s skillful portrayal of binge drinking, foul language, academic dishonesty, and predatory sex on an elite college campus that it is hard to imagine that many readers will actually enjoy this book. Even the partying scenes are joyless, more in the mood of a canvas by Bosch than one by Brueghel. Within days of the novel’s publication, a host of reviewers had insisted—a bit too stridently—that there was not much to learn from this extended exposure of the seamy side of college life. Some thought it exaggerated, and some faulted Wolfe for laboring what everyone already knows: students drink, cheat, and have sex; professors and administrators have agendas. So what?
To this parent and educator, it seems that Wolfe’s four years of research enabled the satirist to produce a credible composite portrayal of a young woman’s struggle to hold on to, and develop, her sense of self in an environment where professors treat such concepts as “self” and “soul” as illusions, and where young people are left almost completely free to act on their most primitive impulses. In addition to dramatizing Charlotte’s immersion in this world, Wolfe also explores the parallel difficulties experienced by three very different male students as they try to figure out what it is to be a man. For anyone who still hopes that college is a place where young men and women are helped to learn how to make decisions wisely and well, this book will be profoundly unsettling. Not only have institutions of higher education decisively rejected the role of in loco parentis, but they are increasingly populated by children whose parents have abdicated their own responsibility.
Tom Wolfe was drawn to the subject of university life, he told an interviewer, when he realized that college has “more and more replaced the church as the source of new values, of new ethical outlooks.” Though conceding that “sex, booze, and status” have always been part of the college scene, Wolfe declared that the contemporary situation is different in that, “with a few exceptions, universities have totally abandoned the idea of strengthening character, and this enormous change” seems to have been “hardest on young women.”
In Charlotte Simmons, one finds all the features that have made Wolfe one of the greatest contemporary North American novelists: a plot that drives at breakneck speed through a major culture-shaping institution, an array of flawed yet yearning characters tested to the limits of their endurance, and startlingly authentic dialogue. Wolfe shows again why he has been compared to Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, and Zola. But in this book Wolfe has stretched the form of the novel in a way that invites comparison with novelists such as Albert Camus and Walker Percy, who explored in their fiction (as well as in essays) the ways in which modern philosophy and science have unsettled our understanding of what it means to be human.
Wolfe has chapters set in the neuroscience classroom interspersed among chapters tracing the social and personal lives of Charlotte and her friends, and by this device Wolfe probes deeply into the nature of personal identity, free will, and the relation between the mind and the brain. What does it mean to say “I am Charlotte Simmons” when the Charlotte Simmons who has spent a year at Dupont University is in many ways not the same person whose parents left her there the previous fall? Wolfe’s unobtrusive allusions to the literature on cognitional theory show that he has done his homework.
We first meet Charlotte Simmons on the eve of her departure from Sparta, North Carolina, where, as a gifted student, she had felt rather isolated from (and superior to) her high school classmates. Her scholarship to renowned Dupont University will enable her, she thinks, “to find people like herself, people who actually have a life of the mind.”
Instead, she finds profound loneliness and, even worse, a drastic loss of privacy. Back in Sparta, when adolescent boys strayed beyond the bounds of acceptable behavior, older men nudged them back into line. But in the co-ed bathroom of her dorm, Charlotte gets her first glimpse of a world where normal restraints on language and conduct have been suspended.
What Charlotte can’t bear to tell her mother is that there is no privacy anywhere at Dupont, including the room she shares with snooty, Groton-educated Beverly. Affluent and already initiated in vice, Beverly is quickly accepted into Dupont’s popular set. In the kind of letter Charlotte wishes she could write, she imagines crying out the truth: “[Beverly] brings boys into bed—and they rut-rut-rut do it—barely four feet from my bed! She leads a wanton sex life! The whole place does! . . . Right in front of you! Momma—what am I to do . . . ?”
With no one to talk to, Charlotte feels a loneliness so deep that it is almost tangible: “It wasn’t merely that she had no friends. She didn’t even have a sanctuary in which she could be simply alone.” For a while, successes in the classroom carry her through. She tries to tell herself: “Charlotte Simmons was above them all. They were specimens for her to study.” She recalls her mother’s parting words about how to deal with people who try to push you into things you don’t want to do: “All you got to say is, ‘I’m Charlotte Simmons, and I don’t hold with things like ’at.’ And they’ll respect you for that.”
But a part ofCharlotte begins to long for acceptance by her peers and even for popularity. In what must surely rank as one of the most squalid seduction scenes in literature, Charlotte’s Spartan self-confidence is overcome by a combination of alcohol, a handsome frat boy’s flattery, and her own ambivalent yearnings to be noticed and envied. Disasters follow thick and fast. In full view of others, Charlotte is humiliated, degraded, and dumped by the caddish Hoyt. As the story spreads around campus, she slides into depression, unable to eat, sleep, or face going to class. Christmas break brings further torment rather than relief, because she now feels estranged even from her family. She can’t enter into their festivities, nor can she respond to her mother’s anxious questions about what’s troubling her.
Charlotte’s recovery from depression involves finding a friend at last. The nerdy, intellectual Adam helps to nurse her back to health. He is smitten with Charlotte, but she is no longer the girl who was hoping to find a soul mate with whom to share the life of the mind. A clever girl after all, she is figuring out how to master the Dupont system. When Adam himself needs support, she is just too busy. Her own sense of herself has become increasingly bound up with how she appears in the eyes of others. When a basketball star in a jam seeks her advice, she is happy to oblige, but she is so intent on being noticed in his company that she barely hears what he has to say. (“She sure hoped Lucy Page and Gloria got a load of Jojo’s anxious body language.”)
Charlotte gradually gets back on the academic track, but too late to save her first semester grades. The excuses she offers her parents for her poor performance are lame. Momma, who is no fool, tells her daughter, “Sounds to me like what you need right now is a talk with your own soul, an honest talk.”
The evolving Charlotte thinks about that advice now and then. Her neuroscience professor says that words like “soul” have no meaning. And yet, “Why do you keep waiting deep in the back of my head, Momma, during my every conscious moment—waiting for me to have that conversation?” What does it mean, she fleetingly wonders, to say, “I am Charlotte Simmons”? Wolfe leaves the reader wondering, too.
What he does not leave in doubt in this morally serious work is the powerful influence that environment can exert upon young men and women at crucial formative stages in their journey through life. The point is lifted up in a prefatory note, ostensibly drawn from the capsule biography of a Dupont professor, describing the experiments that won him fame. There we learn that when Dr. Starling removed the amygdala from the brains of laboratory cats, he observed them “to veer helplessly from one inappropriate affect to another, boredom where there should be fear, cringing where there should be preening, sexual arousal where there was nothing that would stimulate an intact animal.” More surprising was what happened next: when intact “control” cats were exposed to the altered cats, they too began attempting indiscriminately to copulate with any object they encountered. Starling became celebrated for his discovery “that a strong social or ‘cultural’ atmosphere . . . could in time overwhelm the genetically determined responses of perfectly normal, healthy animals.”
Because environments do influence the decisions and actions by which we constitute ourselves as one kind of person or another, this book should be mandatory reading for those who may like it least—mothers and fathers of college-bound young men and women. If it is as widely read and discussed as it deserves to be, I Am Charlotte Simmons will at least encourage parents to ask more searching questions during the recruitment process, and to make informed choices among educational institutions. It may even prompt some soul-searching on the part of those who set policy in colleges and universities.
Mary Ann Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University and President of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.