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...
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