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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 699

The eponymous heroine of I Am Charlotte Simmons is the most brilliant student ever graduated from Alleghany High School in tiny Sparta, located high in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Although she is beautiful of face and form, her academic seriousness has always distanced her from her classmates....

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The eponymous heroine of I Am Charlotte Simmons is the most brilliant student ever graduated from Alleghany High School in tiny Sparta, located high in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Although she is beautiful of face and form, her academic seriousness has always distanced her from her classmates. She wins a scholarship to Dupont University in Chester, Pennsylvania, “on the other side of the Blue Ridge.” Dupont is an elite institution, ranked second in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Her mother tells her that, if faced with a temptation she knows is wrong, she need only remind herself, “I’m Charlotte Simmons.” The novel explores whether she is the Charlotte Simmons of the opening chapters and, if not, what Charlotte Simmons has she become?

Charlotte has dreamed of living the life of the mind at Dupont, but she finds it very different from what she expected. Charlotte is one of the few freshmen who attended a public high school. Even so, the men in her coed bathroom are purposely disgusting. These sons and daughters of privilege are habitually foul-mouthed, drunk, and sexually promiscuous. Beverly Amory, Charlotte’s anorexic roommate from Sherborn, Massachusetts, is patronizing and sarcastic in her manner, sluttish in her behavior. Disguised by the university’s imposing gothic exterior are gloomy corridors and “worn and exhausted” rooms. Dupont’s colors are mauve and yellow. Wolfe cleverly uses the royal connotations of purple to comment ironically on the degenerate lives being led by America’s best and brightest.

On campus, Charlotte is pursued by three very different Dupont men. Joseph J. (Jojo) Johanssen is a six-foot, ten-inch, 250-pound power forward on the Dupont Charlies basketball team. Charlotte urges Jojo to become a real student, as opposed to just a student-athlete, and he responds as well as he can. Adam Gellin (originally Gellininsky) is hired by the Athletic Department to be Jojo’s tutor; he also delivers pizzas and writes for the campus newspaper, The Daily Wave. He is intellectually pretentious, but Charlotte is drawn to him and his little clique of social misfits because they seem more interested in ideas than in sports, keg parties, and “hooking up.” Hoyt Thorpe is the acknowledged leader of the Saint Ray fraternity boys. He is a handsome, charming sexual predator. He seduces Charlotte. It is her first, and a very unpleasant, sexual experience. She falls into a deep depression, which nearly dooms her Dupont career.

The plot weaves three narrative lines together. First, there are Charlotte’s travails in her first semester at Dupont. Second, as Hoyt and his fraternity brother Vance Phipps are walking through the Grove beneath a full moon, they stumble upon the governor of California—a Dupont alumnus on campus to give an address—having sex with a student. Third, Adam has written a history paper for Jojo (before the latter’s academic conversion). Jojo’s professor, Jerome (Jerry) Quat, an activist and an avowed enemy of the Athletic Department, has taken the first steps toward having Jojo and Adam dismissed from Dupont. The narrative threads converge in the final chapters, and the conflicts are resolved in a manner that was skillfully foreshadowed. Hoyt is bribed with the promise of a good job with an IB (investment banking firm) after graduation, but he is betrayed by a disgruntled fraternity brother, who gives the story to the press. Adam gets the scoop for The Daily Wave. Quat, who hates the Republican governor of California, is so pleased with his exposure that he drops his charges against Adam and Jojo. Hoyt’s job offer is withdrawn. In the final chapter, Charlotte has become the unlikely girlfriend of Jojo Johanssen.

The most memorable features of the novel, however, are the richly detailed character studies and Wolfe’s rather disturbing portrayal of American higher education in the twenty-first century.

Review Sources

Booklist 101, no. 8 (December 15, 2004): 691.

Los Angeles Times, October 30, 2004, p. E1.

The New York Review of Books 51, no. 20 (December 16, 2004): 38.

The New York Times, October 29, 2004, p. E33.

The New York Times Book Review 154 (November 28, 2004): 13.

Newsweek 144, no. 19 (November 8, 2004): 53.

Publishers Weekly 251, no. 45 (November 8, 2004): 35.

Time 164 (November 8, 2004): 73.

U.S. News & World Report 137, no. 17 (November 15, 2004): 78.

The Washington Post, November 7, 2004, p. T15.

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