I Am Charlotte Simmons
is a 2004 novel from Tom Wolfe depicting student life at a fictionalized American university. To gather material for the book, Wolfe interviewed students from campuses including UNC-Chapel Hill, Penn U, Duke, and Stanford. Wolfe is a journalist and author famous for such works as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
, The Right Stuff
, The Bonfire of the Vanities
, and more.
The novel covers student Charlotte Simmons’s first six months attending the fictional Dupont University. Dupont, a big-name school, is overwhelming for Charlotte, who comes from a rural backwater as a full-ride scholarship student.
Just before the semester begins, returning student Hoyt Thorpe and his friend Vance, both members of the prestigious Saint Ray fraternity, witness the unnamed Republican governor of California receiving oral sex from a female college student. A bodyguard spots Hoyt and Vance, but the boys successfully beat up the guard and escape the scene. Word spreads across the college and Hoyt becomes even more popular.
When Charlotte arrives at Dupont, she clashes with her roommate, Beverly. Beverly is the daughter of a wealthy CEO, so her background is nothing like Charlotte’s. And unlike the sheltered, virginal Charlotte, Beverly has sex often, “sexiling” Charlotte out of her shared room when she does so. Beverly favors members of the college lacrosse team.
College athlete Jojo Johanssen struggles as a white member of Dupont’s mostly-black basketball team. This year, Dupont has recruited a promising black freshman, and the coach intends to put him on the court in Jojo’s place, benching him in his senior year. Being benched means he is likely to miss out on moving on to the NBA after graduation.
Jojo takes advantage of the college’s tutoring system to force other, brighter students to do his homework for him. This is implied to be a perk of being a college athlete. Jojo’s tutor is Adam Gellin, an intellectual student from a poor background. Adam writes for the college’s newspaper and is a member of a society called the “Millennial Mutants,” which rails against Dupont’s culture of anti-intellectualism and classism. Adam hopes to win a Rhodes scholarship for himself.
Adam and Charlotte meet at the computer lab, where both need to write a paper. Adam tries to commandeer the computer Charlotte is using, saying he needs it more than she does, but she stands up to him. He develops an instant crush on her. Charlotte likes Adam, admiring his intellect, but is disappointed with his lack of popularity. Charlotte is discovering that she wants to become popular herself.
Charlotte meets Hoyt at a frat party. His popularity level is more suitable, but she finds him rude and arrogant. However, when a drunken student at a tailgate party attempts to harass Charlotte, Hoyt fends him off and becomes Charlotte’s hero. She is flattered by his attention and begins to hook up (but not have sex) with him. Hoyt tells her about the incident he witnessed with the governor, and that Adam is trying to investigate what happened. Hoyt also claims that a big-name Wall Street firm has offered him a prestigious job after graduation if he remains silent about what he knows.
Charlotte is Hoyt’s date to the Saint Ray formal. There, she has too much to drink, and Hoyt takes advantage, coercing her into having sex for the first time. The morning after, he dumps her and lets word spread to the rest of campus. Charlotte is humiliated, and other girls on campus laugh at her.
This event sends Charlotte into a deep depression. Her grades suffer. She finds some solace with Adam, whose feelings for her are genuine. He encourages her to persevere and take her final exams rather than give up and drop out.
Adam is almost ready to publish his article about the governor of California and the college student, but trouble breaks out when a paper he has written for Jojo is accused of being plagiarized. Jojo denies that “his” paper was plagiarized, afraid that the athletic department’s misuse of tutors will be revealed. His professor confronts Adam, appearing sympathetic, but when Adam admits he wrote the paper, the professor announces he will press charges against Adam only: as an athlete, Jojo will be protected from consequences.
Afraid his chances at a Rhodes scholarship are over, a devastated Adam turns to Charlotte for support. As he waits to be charged, his article is published and quickly picked up by national media outlets. The governor loses all hope at running for President in the next election, and the job Hoyt was offered is rescinded.
Hoyt’s post-graduation plans flounder. His family spent their savings to send him to college, and his grades have been poor, leaving him with few prospects and nothing to fall back on. Jojo’s professor decides to drop his complaint against Adam so he does not undermine Adam’s credibility; he is a liberal and wants to see the conservative governor’s career go down in flames.
Adam is pleased with himself; he has single-handedly brought down a governor with his reporting. Charlotte begins to date Jojo, who has begun to take his studies more seriously. As the girlfriend of a college athlete, Charlotte is finally popular. Looking back at her first months of college, Charlotte decides intellectualism is not as important as she once thought. Rather, what’s important is being recognized as someone special, elevated from the crowd.I Am Charlotte Simmons
received negative reviews from critics. The New York Times
called it “by far the weakest of [Wolfe’s] novels,” presenting not an investigative look at life on a modern college campus but a “comic-book version of college” rife with stereotypes. The book was awarded the dubious honor of the Literary Review
’s “Bad Sex in Fiction Award” for Wolfe’s descriptions of the carnal act.