Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons as a Window into Who We Are and How We Live

All sad and weary and shallow… for, as Socrates himself put it, ‘If a man debauches himself, believing this will bring him happiness, then he errs from ignorance, not knowing what true happiness is.’

“Moral” was the unwelcome word that crashed the party in his central nervous system.

In the morning—she was gone. Jojo loathed himself.

— I Am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe

Not a week goes by when I am not drawn into commenting on the sexualizing of American culture. Sometimes this happens in a very tender conversation over a cup of tea, listening to the tears of someone’s heart as they tell a tale of hope and sorrow, of yearning and grief. Sometimes it is in a much more public place like a classroom where the intimacy is gone, but the issues are just as live and have far-reaching consequence.

If there is any one story that comes up again and again it is Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, his novel about a young woman who leaves the mountains of North Carolina for the fictional yet very prestigious Dupont University, an amalgam of Duke/Stanford/Harvard.

Who is Tom Wolfe, anyway? And what is it that has made his in-your-face account of the college experience worth the time of those who wade through its 600+ pages?

For more than a generation, Wolfe has been feeling the world around him, putting into words his impressions of what it means to be human as the 20 th becomes the 21 st century. His essays and novels have chronicled the American experience, perhaps better than anyone else, from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to From Bauhaus to Our House to Hooking Up, from The Right Stuff to Bonfire of the Vanities to A Man in Full. He is a wonderfully gifted reporter; whether he is a great novelist, time will tell.

If we take his decade-by-decade analysis as that of an unusually gifted listener– wondering about what he has seen and heard in light of our own convictions about the way the world is and isn’t –these questions stare us in the facewhy I Am Charlotte Simmons, now? in what way is it a window into who we are, what we love and how we live, in the first years of the 21 st-century? There are three sentences in one chapter that give us help in framing an answer.

All sad and weary and shallow… for, as Socrates himself put it, ‘If a man debauches himself, believing this will bring him happiness, then he errs from ignorance, not knowing what true happiness is.’

Wolfe could have chosen any place, any person. It is telling that it is a tale set in the university. In the information age we are more sure than ever that acquiring knowledge is the stepping-stone to success, to mastery of this moment when the whole world seems at our finger-tips. Wasn’t Bacon’s promise that “Knowledge is power”? Profoundly and perversely we have bought into that false hope, and Wolfe, with an ear for the “story,” hears what is going on, and reports. The more perceptive call our moment “info-glut.” And most of the time, when we stop to think about it at all, we feel that way,viz. glutted.

The internet gives us access to everything, all the time. Google this, google that. (I recently “googled” the words, “December” and “despair” and found that 4,700,000 entries came up. One could spend a life on just those two words.) We can click our way into vast libraries without entering the ivy halls; in fact without ever leaving our homes. And yet, with all that is technologically possible, there has never been more competition for getting into “just the right school,” from kindergartens to colleges. People embarrass themselves, stumbling over each other, pushing-and-shoving to get more and more education—with little regard for the warning from one of our wisest novelists, Walker Percy, that “one can get all A’s and still flunk life.”

Charlotte takes her place at this table as a first-generation college student, very bright and very innocent. But she is sure that she knows who she is… I am Charlotte Simmons! Against all comers, people and ideas, she is sure that she will remember to remember what matters most, viz. the true happiness which Socrates points to.

It is that dynamic in the movement from adolescence to adulthood that Wolfe explores in his account of her freshman year. From the moment she steps out of the family pickup truck in Dupont’s parking lot and sees the BMWs and Escalades opening their doors to her fellow first-years, she knows that the university is a very different place than she has ever known. That moment becomes metaphor for her experience throughout the year, viz. the world she has known, the person she has known herself to be, will be pushed to the nth degree before she finishes in May. Or to put it harshly: before she is done with being a freshman, being a freshman will be done with her.

“Moral” was the unwelcome word that crashed the party in his central nervous system.

Nowhere is this more painfully seen than in the sexualizing of her experience as a student, which is the second reason for this particular story. Wolfe unashamedly peers into the sex-saddened society which meets each one of us as we walk through the grocery line week after week. Five Secrets for !!!! You Won’t Be Happy Unless You Try!!!! In the early years of this new millennia, sex sells everything. From cars to clothes, from toothpaste to travel, if it’s not sexy, it’s not!

The book is not for the faint-of-heart. There is a level of explicit sexual crudeness which is painful to a spiritually sensitive person. But there are many who have read it; after all, it is Tom Wolfe’s latest! And there are many who do need to know something of what really goes on in the modern university, as burdensome as that knowledge might be. How hard it is for any of us to be reallyreallyreally in the world— and yet not of it! How to be holy as the Lord our God is holy, and yet wholly engaged in our time with our neighbors? Opening the ears and eyes of our hearts to the world can wound us, especially if we know that there is a responsibility for knowledge.

Charlotte enters into three communities at Dupont, and Wolfe severely limits her experience to just those three. Through her eyes we learn the ways and means of the jock culture, the fraternity/sorority houses, and the “militant mutants,” i.e. the newspaper staff. That is a weakness in his imagination, and in the story. They are representative, but I found myself longing for her to meet someone of true and honest faith, to be invited into a real conversation about the meaning of life and love by a friend from IVCF, the Coalition for Christian Outreach, or Reformed University Fellowship– someone somewhere who would love her for the sake of Jesus and the kingdom.

But she meets no one like that, ever.

She does meet Jojo, a basketball player who in his senior year has never been asked to be serious about anything other than hoops. His courses are ones designed for jocks, his apartment is outfitted for its most important business, viz. video games, and his study habits are nil. Why study, after all? If the university provides a nerd to make sure that papers are in and on time, why would you ever need to study? Jojo knows he is a stud. Everyone knows Jojo is a stud.

Charlotte complicates his life, because he has never met anyone who honestly pays attention in class. And the only reason he meets her is that he mistakenly signs up for a class that actually invites him to think, one that is outside of the regular “course of studies” for athletes.

And he has never met a girl who wasn’t smitten by his aura, the fame of being Jojo, basketball star at Dupont. Charlotte seems from another planet. In a culture of whatever, she knows who she is and why she is there… after all, I am Charlotte Simmons.

There is more to the story, of course. But let’s return to the beginning, “the three sentences, one chapter—and one sad conclusion.” Jojo is with the team on a road-trip. His teammates have gone out on the town, but he decides to discipline himself and work on a paper. Everyone is surprised, even he is surprised. But he stays put, and reads Socrates, “If a man debauches himself….”

Knock, knock, knock. Before the night is completely gone, a beautiful babe shows up at his door, and with a certain perverse innocence, says to Jojo, “Can I come in?” he wants to know how she knew he was there. “Your teammates told me…. They said you’ve been studying very hard and feeling lonesome, and you needed a break… and here I am.”

Yes, there she was. She came in, and came onto Jojo in a way that was very hard to refuse… andcrashed the party in his central nervous system.

And Jojo? Jojo loathed himself.

That right in the middle of Wolfe’s difficult-to-read account of life in the university, coarse and crude as it is, he situates his story in a moral universe, is amazing. For it is not only Jojo who loathes himself, but sorrowfully, Charlotte does too—for choices she makes during the year. That thread of reflection and remorse—I will not call it repentance –is strong enough that the reviews in prominent national papers like the NY Times and the Washington Post were dismissive. While on the one hand they could not ignore a new Wolfe novel, they wondered—the disdain dripping from their proverbial pens –which cabbage leaf he crawled out from under. Sooo out-of-date! What is the problem, Tom Wolfe, with an 18-year old girl being a good person, a good student, and good in bed? What world do you live in, anyway, Tom Wolfe?

To some extent, with common grace insights, he lives in the world that is really there, the one in which we live and move have our being. It is the one that Romans 1 affirms, the one whose contours are so plainly revealed that sons of Adam and daughters of Eve are without excuse when they deny its reality and truth. But people do repress and suppress what they know in the deepest places of their hearts, and choose to worship what has been created rather than the Creator himself. In every century and in every culture human beings and human history suffer when that choice is made. We live a little lower than the angels, even lower than the way humans are to live. And the consequences ripple across time, affecting persons and polities.

Wolfe sees something of this, even through a glass darkly. He is an intellectually serious person who has something to say in his stories. Walker Percy described his own writing as a diagnostician, the novelist as physician. With self-consciousness, Wolfe takes up that calling too. I read I Am Charlotte Simmons as a narrative exposition of his two essays, “Hooking Up” and “Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died,” both now available in the collection, Hooking Up. For several years I have assigned them in courses I have taught, as I think that they are about as close as we get to a finger-on-the-pulse of contemporary culture, viz. where we are right now.

The first is a look at the “hooking up” phenomenon, the term-of-choice to describe varieties of sexual intimacy: from the fellatio in the hallways and stairwells of wealthy suburban junior high schools all the way through to serial, almost anonymous “sex in the city” for adults of all sizes and shapes. As he puts it at one point: “in the era of hooking up, ‘first base’ meant deep kissing, groping, and fondling; ‘second base’ meant oral sex, ‘third base’ meant going all the way; and ‘home plate’ meant learning each other’s names.”

Assigning this in many different venues has persuaded me that twenty-somethings see Wolfe as describing their experience—whether they are in the most closeted of Christian ghettos or in the most out-of-the-closet secular settings. As one thoughtful young student at a Christian college put it to me, comparing Cornelius Plantinga’s wonderfully insightful Engaging God’s World with Wolfe’s Hooking Up, “Plantinga tells the story of the world of the classroom; Wolfe tells the story of the world we live in when we leave class.” I thought that was unfair to Plantinga, as his book is a richer, truer account of life under the sun than most I know, but the comment was honestly offered.

Before he is done, Wolfe offers an almost-Schafferian apologetic, pushing the deconstructionist worldview that stands behind the “hooking up” world to the logic of its presuppositions. If there are no certainties about anything, if everything in life and the world has been “constructed” and is therefore to be “deconstructed,” then why not see our deepest longings for intimacy, to know and be known, to love and be loved, as mere “hooking up”? He writes,

“Oddly, when deconstructionists require appendectomies or bypass surgery or even a root canal job, they never deconstructed medical or dental ‘truth,’ but went along with whatever their board-certified, profit-oriented surgeons proclaimed as the last word.”

You say that you believe there are no “truths,” only perspectives and voices? Well, why not take that commitment with you to your doctor’s office and the operating room? to the way you relate to medicine? Are there truths and certainties in that realm, but not where you teach? Are these ideas you argue for, but don’t really live? Schaeffer would have been honored.

The second essay is an analysis of E. O. Wilson’s Consilience, a book by the noted Harvard biologist-philosopher which argues that, in the end, we are sophisticated machines. We are our DNA, nothing more, nothing less. Wilson is brilliant, a gifted scholar with a passion to explore the world and to understand it. An image-bearer of God he sees something of the truth of our existence, and does so with Harvard-class sophistication.

We are from the dust, and to the dust we shall return. We live in our bodies. Much of what we know of life is our material existence. And not a day passes when new discoveries of the mystery of DNA fail to bring forth awe from those with eyes to see. In my own state of Virginia two men were released today from decades of imprisonment because DNA testing proved beyond a doubt that they were falsely accused. We are our DNA, yes– but we are also much more.

Vaclav Havel, the playwright-prisoner-politician, reflecting on the victim status and identity of the Czech people after decades of totalitarianism from the Nazis and the Soviets, wrote “The secret of man is the secret of his responsibility.” At the very core of our humanity is our ability to respond, our responsibility. Havel saw that as long as his people saw themselves as victims, they had no future. They were politically paralyzed, unable to act, unable to imagine a way forward, unable to organize for a more truthful and just society.

Havel argues that if we lose God in the modern world then we lose access, philosophically and politically, to four weighty words: meaning and purpose, accountability and responsibility. With uncanny insight he sees where the line-in-the-sand is for everyone everywhere.

As gifted artists with social and political concerns, Wolfe and Havel are “feeling” the contemporary worldview, and know that it has consequences; in different ways they both understand that ideas have legs. Wolfe takes his critique of Wilson back into the 19 th-century, and listens to Nietzsche comment on the world that came into being, bringing forth his announcement of the death of God, but also his insistence that his fellow atheists be honest and stop using the words “moral” and “meaning.” Nietzsche saw the price tag for a world without God, even as he welcomed it.

Wolfe’s argument is longer and more complex, but after walking through the growth in a DNA-shaped view of the world with very materialist assumptions at its heart, he observes “The conclusion people out beyond the laboratory walls are drawing is: The fix is in! We’re all hardwired! That, and: Don’t blame me! I’m wired wrong!”

Reminiscent of Steve Turner’s brilliant poem, “Creed” Wolfe situates his analysis in tension with the parameters of the worldview formed and framed by the secular trinity of Marxfreudanddarwin. Rightly seeing them as the intellectual fathers of the modern world whose thinking has affected generations, Wolfe says,

“Meanwhile, the notion of the self-a self who exercises self-discipline, postpones gratification, curbs the sexual appetite, stops short of aggression and criminal behavior -a self who can become more intelligent and lift itself to the very peaks of life by its own bootstraps through study, practice, perseverance, and refusal to give up in the face of great odds -this old-fashioned notion of success through enterprise and true grit is already slipping away, slipping away… slipping away….”

In the new world of neuroscience hailed by Wilson and critiqued by Wolfe, the social conditioning of Marx and Freud seem passé; but the evolution of Darwin’s vision seems ever-more important and intriguing. (Think here of the very hard lines being drawn over the intelligent design debate, with the secular elite voices that dominate the universities and the national papers and magazines so celebrative of the Darwinian hypothesis that Everything is a result of time working matter in the framework of chance; any other opinion is unworthy of “public” discussion.)

Hear Wolfe again, imaging a new Nietzsche bringing the news in 2010 or 2030, proclaiming “the greatest event of the new millennium: ‘The soul, that last refuge of values, is dead, because educated people no longer believe it exists.’ Unless assurances of the Wilsons and the Dennetts and the Dawkinses also start rippling out, the madhouse that will ensue may make the phrase ‘the total eclipse of all values’ seem tame.”

From within his own paradigm, Nietzsche prophesied that a world without God would by the beginning of our century be one marked by “the total eclipse of all values.” It is with some irony that it was Nietzsche, after all, who argued for the word “values,” understanding that we would need a new word if we no longer had access to “morals” and “meaning.” He or she who has ears, let them hear. I think that Schaeffer would be honored here too, as Wolfe is “taking the roof off” of the Wilsonian view of human life-if we are only and evermore DNA.

To say it simply: I Am Charlotte Simmons is a story based upon a narrative vision of the worldviews criticized by Wolfe in these two essays. So the novel must be seen as a culturally-serious effort to understand our world. Yes, sometimes to lay it bare. And yes, sometimes to stick it in our collective face. But always to allow us to see and hear what the modern world feels like, for those who are living in its center.

One good friend, a mother of a first-year student at the University of Virginia, read the book in four days. She devoured it. Accomplished and aware, sophisticated and savvy, she was aghast at some of what she read-and she called her son. His response? “Mom! I’ve been sexiled four times already, and we’re only half way through the year.” For the uninitiated, “sexiled” means that one roommate asks another roommate to leave the room so that a “hookup” can happen. She looked at me, eyes full of wonder and care, and said, “And I know his roommate!”

Wolfe does not bring a coherent worldview himself to bear on his subject. From the best I can do with what I have read, and from one conversation with him, the closest he gets to a philosophical root that makes sense of the world is Stoicism. A Man in Full is the best literary expression of that. But while there are echoes of reality in that vision, it stops short of the Incarnation and has no eyes to see the meaning of a Trinitarian God who has revealed himself in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. What it does see is the suffering and pain of the world, and that I honor. The Stoics take that seriously; where they miss the mark is seeing that it is possible to step into the messes and hurts and pains and wounds, and to hold onto them in imitation of Christ, for the sake of the kingdom.

I spent most of day with Wolfe a few years ago, and listened with great interest. Over lunch I told him that I almost always assigned his work in my classes, and that I had given a week of my life to A Man in Full, enjoying it all the way to the very… well, not quite. I didn’t really think the conclusion was right for the story he had told, and it disappointed me. He had shown Stoicism to be wanting at the critical point in the story; it was believed, but it could not address the need of the moment. The Schaefferian apologetic one more time-but surprisingly Wolfe was unwilling to bite the bullet in the end, and offered Stoicism as a true answer to our deepest hopes.

There he was across the table, white linen suit and carnation-Tom Wolfe as the man in full -and he looked back at me, finally saying, “I don’t finish my stories very well, do I?” It was an amazing moment. I have not read a Wolfe novel yet where he has, I Am Charlotte Simmons being the most recent. His story-telling stumbles, and rather than offering an Anna Karenina or a Kristen Lavransdatter he offers something that is less-than-satisfying, as his story fails to follow-through the logic of his own insight.

In his great work of cultural apologetics, Signposts in a Strange Land, Walker Percy argues that “Bad books always lie. They lie most of all about the human condition.” With uncommon brilliance and bravery in a secularizing, pluralizing world, he goes on to ask, “Have you read any good behaviorist novels lately?” And then right on through James Sire’s “universe next door.” Any good Buddhist novels lately? Any good Marxist novels lately? Any good Freudian novels lately? And with each question he sets forth why that would be hard, given the beliefs about the human condition at the heart of each worldview.

Percy finishes well, setting forth his own conviction that it is the Jewish and Christian view of life, with its understanding of human nature and history, that alone can produce a good novel, and that when novelists tell a good story with no apparent reference to that tradition, they are “living off of the fat,” as he puts it.

With that standard, Wolfe sees clearly, understanding that we live in a moral universe where real right and wrong exist-whether we believe in them or not, whether we want them or not -and that men and women who suppress that reality do so at their peril. ‘If a man debauches himself, believing this will bring him happiness, then he errs from ignorance, not knowing what true happiness is.’

For months this past year, the NY Times on-line had as their most prominent pop-up ad one for the film “Kinsey.” So while reading David Brooks I was always aware of the film too; two different universes, next door to each other, competing in the public square. Does the NY Times have a view of the world that it wants the rest of us to buy into? Yes, from beginning to end-and we should not be surprised.

I think that is why the secular, sexualizing world of the early 21 st-century has been sneeringly dismissive of Wolfe’s story. In the words of Jesus, it “hates the light” of the truth about the human condition that is woven through what is only a common grace account of life. Wolfe is not writing as a Christian, making a Christian argument.

Why on earth would Jojo “loath himself”? For hooking up with a beautiful woman who comes knocking on his door? Come on. Grow up. We’re sophisticated machines, after all. The old, out-of-date categories of right and wrong no longer apply. “Morals” and “meaning” went out with the Enlightenment. Now we know better.

The first time I really saw that that worldview was more “the emperor has no clothes” than one I should be enamored by was reading another of Steve Turner’s poems some 30 years ago. The artists do “get there” first, and in his little poem, “The Conclusion,” he was in fact “bright as a light, sharp as a razor,” as the book’s cover promised.

My love, she said
When all’s considered,
We’re only machines.

I chained her
To my bedroom wall
For future use.

And she cried.

Jojo loathed himself because he acted against the moral universe that is really there, against his humanity as well as against the law of God. A son of Adam would loathe himself. A sophisticated machine would…. well, in the end, I think he would cry-that is, if the author was reflecting the truth of the human condition. Jojo would have to cry, wouldn’t he? We are our DNA, but we are also able to respond, responsible. It is the secret of our humanity, at the very core of who we are as human beings, made in the image of God.

Yes, Jojo loathed himself. God, human nature and history are together on this one.

This essay first appeared in Critique the publication of Ransom Fellowship [http://ransomfellowship.org] in the spring of 2006. For more than 20 years Steve has served on its board, and counts its founders Denis and Margie Haack as among his dearest friends.

The Professor of Marketplace Theology and Leadership at Regent College and Director of Regent’s Master of Arts in Leadership, Theology, and Society program, Steven is the founder of The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Meet Dr. Steven Garber