Review of “I am Charlotte Simmons” by Tom Wolfe

This book was published shortly after I graduated from college. While Tom Wolfe was visiting top ranked national universities to conduct his research for this book, I was attending a top ranked national university.

And the book is nominally about university life in the dawn of a new century. I think the book is really about, as Wolfe put it elsewhere, the death of the soul. It just so happens, that university life at the dawn of the 21st Century provides particularly good insight into the consequences of the death of the soul.

Do pause and read that article, as it’s really what the book is about. Here’s an excerpt for those who don’t want to read the whole thing:

Thereupon, in the year 2006 or 2026, some new Nietzsche will step forward to announce: “The self is dead”—except that being prone to the poetic, like Nietzsche, he will probably say: “The soul is dead.” He will say that he is merely bringing the news, the news of the greatest event of the millennium: “The soul, that last refuge of values, is dead, because educated people no longer believe it exists.” Unless the assurances of the Wilsons and the Dennetts and the Dawkinses also start rippling out, the lurid carnival that will ensue may make the phrase “the total eclipse of all values” seem tame.

“The lurid carnival” is a nice description of university life in the early 2000s. While visiting the lurid carnival, Wolfe also touches upon the higher education bubble, the lack of meaningful educating at universities, higher education’s absurd diversity fetish, the sexual marketplace, elitism and the rise of the “aristo-meritocrats.”

The book opens with Charlotte Simmons leaving her small, appalachian, religious, traditional home town for Dupont University, one of the best schools in the country.

The game-o-sphere often mocks people for saying that certain girls are “not like that.” Presumably, girls that are not like that will really fall in love with a nice guy and love him unconditionally, or whatever. The point here is that if any girl is “not like that,” it’s Charlotte Simmons.

These traits are interesting from a game perspective and from the neuroscientific perspective that Wolfe is more interested in. We come to find out that Charlotte is basically like that, but nevertheless, there just might be a little bit of a soul that somehow survives the lurid carnival of Dupont University.

Wolfe doesn’t spend much time actually describing the university, but when he does the descriptions leave a sense of steady decline. There are beautiful buildings and vast libraries that are basically unused. It’s all geared towards imparting knowledge, yet everyone around is busy trying to have sex with each other or desperately trying to out PC each other.

The male characters (an omega, an alpha and a super-alpha), in addition to Charlotte, dominate the novel. Let’s meet them.

The first is Jojo. He’s a white basketball player (basketball is everything at Dupont – think Duke – making Jojo our super-alpha). Jojo’s character allows Wolfe to provide various insights into university life. For example, Wolfe has lots of fun ripping on universities’ religious-like belief in diversity. However, their diversity is bullshit all the way down. First, it’s only “skin-deep” diversity. Admissions officers are paid six-figure salaries to select minority students who will act as much as possible like the wealthy white kids that make up most of the student body. Second, once these non-diverse diversoids are all together at the university, they segregate themselves by race anyway (one of the students always refers to “dispersity” instead of “diversity”).

The basketball team best shows this, since the blacks kids on the basketball team are really diverse. They’re dumb, they’re aggressive, and (coincidentally of course) they’re from poor backgrounds. The actual diversity between the basketball players and the students occasionally pops up, mocking the whole carefully constructed and controlled “diversity” created by the highly-paid admissions officers.

Jojo also helps highlight the black/white dynamic that is similar to the one in Wolfe’s earlier novels. The athletic fetish of the university and the racial taboos (racial insults are “worse than homicide” at universities) put blacks in position of power and (the former particularly) allow the athletes to reap huge (generally sexual – though sex is the de facto currency of the modern university) rewards.

Jojo is not particularly bright – he’s an idiot by the standards of the rest of the Dupont students. But he’s a sincere guy with a thirst for knowledge. Alas, since he’s an athlete in a modern university, nobody wants him to actually learn anything. Except Charlotte, who treats him like a normal person (after all, she’s used to dealing with people that aren’t brilliant, unlike the rest of the students).

The next character is Hoyt Thorpe, our alpha. Hoyt is a fraternity member and lacrosse player. We meet him as he’s on his way home from a party. On his walk back, he encounters a Republican Presidential hopeful getting a blow job from a student.

Hoyt allows Wolfe to portray fraternity life in all its lurid carnality. Despite the vulgarity, sexual depravity, and general hedonism, Wolfe seems to have some sympathy with fraternity brothers. They are the only men left on a campus filled with absurd diversity standards that beg to be mocked. In an environment in which gays are “moral superiors,” a little manliness is desperately needed.

The final main character is Adam Gellin. He’s a very smart kid who is my new archetype for the beta male. Adam is Wolfe’s “aristo-meritocrat.” He’s the sort of guy that goes on to positions of power in the Cathedral, and he knows he deserves it (because, after all, he’s so smart). At the same time, he’s basically lost in the university. It’s no longer a place for obtaining knowledge. Instead, it’s a lurid carnival of sexuality, in which guys like Adam just keep losing even though they’re so smart.

He vaguely knows why he always loses, but he bristles at the injustice of all. He should get kudos for marching in favor of gays, but he’s afraid everyone will just think he’s gay – and frankly, he might as well be.

Frankly, everyone at Dupont is a future aristo-meritocrat. Adam is just at the top of the intellectual pecking order. Wolfe’s portrayal of the elite is interesting when compared to Charles Murray’s. The elite seem to use university as a way to get out all of their worst behavior, after which they settle down to nice, conservative lifestyles.

Now that we know the characters, let’s get to the plot.

Charlotte gets to school and starts doing well. She’s doing really well, since she’s the only student that actually reads the books, attends all the classes and pays attention (this guarantees at least a B+ depending on what you’re studying).

Outside of classes, she’s lost in the hyper-sexualized university.

She meets all of the male characters. She begins succumbing to the sexual nature of Dupont. Can she resist? Is there a “she” to do the resisting?

Adam falls in love with her, but she has no interest in him beyond being friends. She starts falling for Hoyt, but wants to take it slow (to his shock and frustration, but he stays interested while seeing other girls).

Eventually Hoyt invites her to a formal fraternity party in Washington, DC. Charlotte gets drunk and loses her virginity to Hoyt (in a super painful sex scene), who then loses interest.

She’s mortified and devastated. Her grades slip and she falls apart. She runs to Adam for help.

Adam gets her back on her feet, though in the meantime her grades slip to Ds. These grades are the only unrealistic part of the book. There’s no way she wouldn’t still be getting As or Bs.

There are some super painful scenes with Adam during this part of the book. For example, he tells her he loves her in a totally inappropriate setting. He’s constantly hugging her, and when he does so, he always sways gently. She’s, of course, totally creeped out by his beta-ness, but it “would be so much simpler” if she could just like Adam.

During all of this, another story that involves Jojo and Adam unfolds. Jojo has a leftist professor who’s out to expose the academic fraud that is the basketball team. Jojo, of course, doesn’t do any of his own work. In fact, Adam does it all for him.

This professor busts Jojo and Adam. The professor is ready to turn them in, thereby destroying Jojo’s basketball career and Adam’s academic career. However, before the professor turns them in, Adam (who reports for the school newspaper) publishes the story about the Republican Presidential hopeful getting a blow job from a student. The professor’s concern for academic integrity loses out to his desire not to help a Republican, and he drops the matter.

In the end, Charlotte falls for Jojo and they start dating (really dating) on Charlotte’s terms. Both she and Jojo seem to escape the lurid carnival in their own ways. Perhaps even a bit of a soul ends up sneaking out.

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18 Responses to Review of “I am Charlotte Simmons” by Tom Wolfe

  1. josh says:

    In another thread somebody suggested you read some C.S. Lewis. If you liked Wolf’s article you should read “The Abolition of Man”.

    The article and review also brought to mind Carlyle’s Sartor Resortus. In the end there really is the everlasting Yeah or the everlasting No.

    • asdf says:

      There is a C.S. Lewis quote somewhere about how you “can’t study man, you can merely get to know him.”

      I’m about as plugged into science, statistics, and rationality as you can get. And I just can’t get into determinism. I’ve tried to deny the soul and the spiritual so long and I can’t.

      In any great moral trial one requires a philosophy of blood and heart. It’s been the only thing to get me through my own trials. Determinism won’t do. More from Lewis:

      “His ‘scientific’ outlook had never been a real philosophy believed with blood and heart. It had lived only in his brain, and was a part of that public self which was now failing him.”

  2. Elihu says:

    As I recall, one of the most common critical objections to IACS was that it portrayed university life unrealistically. I always found that hilarious, how baby boomers simply couldn’t believe the world they had created.

    Slightly related: There was a sequence in the London 2012 opening ceremony in which one teenager asked another if she was single. She replied: “I’m hooked up, but my sister isn’t!”

    As though “hookup” was nothing more than slang for relationship. Ah well, they’ll get it eventually.

    • ivvenalis says:

      There’s was an article on the old Calico Cat blog contrasting critical objections to IACS (“Unrealistic! Hyperbolic! Sensationally lurid!”) to the objections of the younger generations (“So? What’s the big deal? Doesn’t everybody know this already?”). In fact, that article encouraged me to buy the book, although I still haven’t read it. I’ll have to get around to it next.

    • Spiralina says:

      It was NOT unrealistic at all. I attended Duke University during the time when Tom Wolfe was doing most of his research for this book there, and if anything he played DOWN the rampant sexual promiscuity and alcohol abuse that characterized student life there. It would be pretty disgusting to the casual observer.

    • Samson J. says:

      I always found that hilarious, how baby boomers simply couldn’t believe the world they had created.

      The scene in the book where the guy’s parents (also Dupont alumni) attend the shockingly decadent tailgate party is hilarious and brilliant.

    • Foseti says:

      My mom read the book when it first came out. I read it at the same time. She said something like, “college wasn’t really like that, was it?”

      I told her it was exactly like that.

      I’ve never understood the “unrealistic” objection to this book. I think Wolfe nailed it.

  3. […] takes a Game-influenced look at a Tom Wolfe […]

  4. Samson J. says:

    The point here is that if any girl is “not like that,” it’s Charlotte Simmons.

    These traits are interesting from a game perspective and from the neuroscientific perspective that Wolfe is more interested in. We come to find out that Charlotte is basically like that, but nevertheless, there just might be a little bit of a soul that somehow survives the lurid carnival of Dupont University.

    I love Wolfe (read a few of his books within weeks of each other last year), but a few of his plot points disappointed me, this one in particular. Charlotte’s ultimate fate and choices were one of my least favourite parts of this story, because I *do* think she was “not like that”. Her ultimate fate is not unrealistic, of course (and makes for a better story than what I was hoping for), but neither would it have been unrealistic for her to have remained a “good girl” forever. There really are girls who “aren’t like that”.

    He’s the sort of guy that goes on to positions of power in the Cathedral, and he knows he deserves it (because, after all, he’s so smart)

    You know, I can’t believe there was a time in my life when I actually thought that smart people (obviously) deserved everything simply for being smart.

    • Foseti says:

      We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one.

      Charlotte’s “not like that,” but she’s a very attractive girl in a hyper-sexualized setting. I would have found it totally unrealistic if she had been totally resistant to her surroundings.

      • samsonsjawbone says:

        I don’t know if the discussion is dead yet, but something else occurred to me that relates very much to all this, which is that I was disappointed by Wolfe’s depiction of Charlotte’s Christianity. In the story, Charlotte is very much portrayed as a cultural Christian, but it is never very clear that she has an actual, living faith – correct me if I’m wrong, but while at Dupont she never attends church or even Campus Crusade or anything. The distinction can be hard to see because she comes from an area that is *very* culturally Christian, but it’s an important distinction, and helps explain why she eventually succumbs to the modern college experience.

    • Bill says:

      You know, I can’t believe there was a time in my life when I actually thought that smart people (obviously) deserved everything simply for being smart.

      It’s not just that I thought that I deserved everything for being so smart but that I also though I deserved everything in compensation for the awful way high school and college go for people like me.

      It is interesting the way that latter-day Adams never lose their fear and loathing of Hoyt.

  5. […] Foseti: Review of “I am Charlotte Simmons” by Tom Wolfe […]

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  7. […] American universities may be the best place to explore the “lurid carnival” that is the modern sexual […]

  8. […] American universities may be the best place to explore the “lurid carnival” that is the modern sexual marketplace, […]

  9. […] my thoughts about I am Charlotte Simmons because I’d probably wind up turning in a bunch of Bircher-grade conspiratorial authoritarian nonsense. I would, on the other hand, consider hiring a mercenary to articulate my thoughts on the parts […]

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