As someone interested in all things pertaining to education and the university, it was with no little eagerness that I picked up Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons. When I finished, I felt confused and somewhat disgusted, which is (I’m guessing) exactly what Wolfe wanted.
Charlotte Simmons is a small town girl from North Carolina whose excellent academic record earns her admission to the fictional DuPont University, a near-Ivy League caliber school that is reminiscent of Duke.
The story follows her baptism into college life at a secular campus, a baptism that is painful and distressing to observe. Wolfe carefully describes the fragmentation of the university according to social class and interests, and is unremitting in depicting Charlotte’s struggles to fit in as an exceptionally intelligent woman in a culture that values…things other than intelligence. Simmons and the other characters in the book must wrestle with the bifurcation between their social selves and their souls–souls they would disavow the existence of and quickly work to stifle.
While I would like to describe Wolfe’s story as unremittingly bleak, it ends (not surprisingly) with a vague and imprecise optimism, the basis for which is some sort of reconciliation between who Charlotte is and who her society expects her to be. The questions the book raises are never answered, leaving the reader in a type of moral confusion. There is clearly something wrong, but it’s not exactly clear what or how to fix it. Saying “I am Charlotte Simmons” as a mantra seems unsatisfactory.
But this is why the book is so effective. By leaving the moral questions as questions, it does more than describe college life for the reader. It makes the reader feel the injustice of it and how most college students respond to it: with a groundless optimism that simply moves on from deep moral issues without ever really resolving them.
I Am Charlotte Simmons is for mature readers only. The language is overwhelmingly toxic, while the descriptions of sexual activity among college students are explicit and disturbing. The content makes it difficult to read.
It is also a long book, as it rings in at 676 pages. I haven’t read any of Wolfe’s other books, so I can’t tell whether his style is always this coarse and casual but it makes for a much longer book than is really necessary. To do him justice, my hunch is that his breezy fashion is intended to ensure that the reader never leaves the college atmosphere, not even when the narrator speaks). That said, it is difficult to describe Wolfe’s writing as good.
While much of Wolfe’s content can, no doubt, be found elsewhere in less offensive fashion, I Am Charlotte Simmons makes the reader feel what it’s like to be a college student at a secular university in ways that few things can. It’s not a pleasant feeling, to be sure, but for those who are interested in helping high school students prepare for university or in working with college students, I am Charlotte Simmon is useful indeed.