I Am Charlotte Simmons, like most of author Tom Wolfe's work, employs an extravagant, sprawling style to examine a small segment of society. Beginning with nonfiction treatments of such specialized American subcultures as the custom car world and NASA astronauts, Wolfe then turned to the novel to explore the excesses of New York City in the 1980's and the southern elite of Atlanta. Known as an astute and acerbic social observer and critic, he has coined such catchphrases as the “me decade” and “good old boy,” which have become part of the American national lexicon. With this reputation firmly established, Wolfe turns his attention to college life, which he researched extensively at such institutions as Stanford University, the University of Michigan, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to find inspiration for his fictional campus and its young denizens.
The novel centers on freshman Charlotte Simmons, newly arrived from the backwoods of North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains in possession of a full scholarship to Pennsylvania's prestigious and fictional Dupont University. Charlotte spent her high school years studying under the tutelage of spinster English teacher Miss Pennington and living under the protective auspices of her strict but loving parents. She eschewed a normal teenage social life in favor of academic pursuits, and although her perfect 1600 SAT score and straight-A average inspired resentment in most of her peers, she is nonetheless something of an icon in her hometown of Sparta. The townspeople hold high expectations for her brilliant future.
Arriving at Dupont, the utterly naïve Charlotte suffers from massive culture shock as her dreams of an intellectual paradise give way to the more sordid reality of campus life. Her previous sheltered existence has not prepared her for the foul-mouthed, cell phone-toting, designer clothes-wearing, prep school-educated teenagers she encounters as, laden down with mini-refrigerators, DVD players, and microwave ovens, they move into the freshman dormitory. Stunned by the unexpected reality of her surroundings, she is determined to remain unchanged by her experience in this new environment, vowing to stay true to herself and take her mother's advice to heart: “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.” Charlotte repeats this mantra, “I am Charlotte Simmons,” frequently, in an attempt to maintain her self-esteem and keep the wolves of change from her door.
Charlotte's self-resolve eventually gives way to desperate loneliness, and desire for human contact begins to erode her resolution. Somewhat reluctantly, she becomes involved with three older students, all attracted by her refreshingly natural beauty. The first, Jojo Johanssen, star forward of Dupont's basketball team, is beginning to question the value of the watered-down education provided to the school's athletes and is encouraged by Charlotte to take his studies more seriously, much to the dismay of his coach. Nerdy intellectual Adam Gellin, who plans to parlay his education into a prestigious Rhodes scholarship and a vaguely imagined career as a member of the intellectual elite, hopes to lose his virginity to the pure freshman. Fraternity boy Hoyt Thorpe, who has begun to realize that his social status on campus will not compensate for bad grades when it comes to securing a high-paying Wall Street job after graduation, looks to Charlotte as a particularly challenging notch on his belt. Of course, Charlotte is destined to lose her virginity to one of these characters before the novel's end, and she does so in a particularly sordid and pathetic manner, in one of the novel's most vivid scenes.
Charlotte's story is bookended by an event which occurs before her arrival on campus and whose significance culminates near the end of her first year. Hoyt and a fraternity brother stumble upon the governor of California, an aspiring presidential candidate visiting their campus for a speaking engagement, receiving oral sex from a Dupont coed on the deserted quad. The two boys subsequently scuffle with the governor's bodyguards, knocking one of them...
(The entire section is 1711 words.)