I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe, part II
This is the second part of my review of I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe. Here is a link to the first part: I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe, part I.
Is Charlotte unbelievably naïve?
One of the frequent complaints about this novel is that Charlotte is unbelievably naïve, and this ruins the whole book. How can someone with a 1600 SAT, it is reasoned, not realize that there’s sex going on at college? Doesn’t she have a TV set that picks up the same programs that everyone else in the United States watches?
I found Charlotte’s naïveté perfectly believable, and the fact that some people just don’t get it indicates how big of a cultural divide we really have in America, and shows that there are smart educated people who are completely unable to understand how people from backgrounds different than themselves think.
First of all, yes Charlotte had a perfect 1600 on the SAT, but we all know that there are people who are very book smart yet somehow are completely lacking in what they call street smarts. The Adam Gellin “nerd” character in the book is one such example, and it’s interesting to note that although everyone has been criticizing Tom Wolfe’s depiction of Charlotte, I have not yet read a single review where someone said that Adam Gellin was not a believable character.
And yes, Charlotte has a television, but she wouldn’t have cable television because her parents are too poor. Now think about what shows exist on regular broadcast TV that would prepare anyone for what Tom Wolfe wrote about in his book, and what real college students at elite universities say is an accurate depiction. I can’t think of any!
Broadcast TV is actually the very embodiment of those conventional middle class values that I wrote about in part I of the review. Just about everyone on broadcast TV believes in God, consumes alcohol only moderately if at all, has sex only in a very committed relationship, and of course no one on TV has ever, ever, ever had an abortion.
On the TV show Beverly Hills 90210, the classic show about young people, the Tori Spelling character didn’t lose her virginity until many many seasons had passed, and it was with her high school sweetheart who had been her boyfriend for eons.
Furthermore, who even knows if Beverly Hills 90210 was the kind of show that Charlotte’s mother let her watch? Charlotte’s mother, being the strict heavily religious type, probably censored her children’s TV viewing. I’m sure that she never permitted her kids to see any R rated movies. Although they probably never went out to the movies anyway because they were so poor.
Most kids learn about what other kids are really doing not from television, but from other kids! And Tom Wolfe explained in the book how Charlotte had no friends in high school except Laurie who was also a religious type. Because she was so smart in a small town where everyone else was dumb, she obviously had nothing in common with the other kids, which adequately explains her lack of friends and her inexperience with boys.
We also have to realize that Charlotte had no contact with anyone from the upper middle class or the upper class, and these were the classes to which the vast majority of students at the fictional Dupont belonged. In Charlotte’s small town, she saw only two classes: the middle class (based on values, not family wealth) and the lower class. Because the middle class has so much better manners than the lower class, she extrapolated and assumed that the manners of the upper classes would be that much better! Charlotte didn’t realize that the middle class is actually the most boring of all classes.
It is true that Tom Wolfe uses a naïve main character as a device that allows him to express his own shock at what he saw going on at college. Tom Wolfe may be an old guy of 73, but he’s a whole lot more sophisticated than Charlotte. He’s seen all the R rated movies like Animal House that Charlotte didn’t, and he has even hung out with Black Panthers. If Tom Wolfe is shocked at the outrageousness of college behavior, then someone from Charlotte’s background would be even more so.
I now offer the following passage from an article in the Stanford school newspaper:
[F]reshman Lindsay Reinsmith thought the central storyline — depicting Charlotte’s struggle to adapt to life outside a small town — was a plausible one. Reinsmith hails from The Woodlands, Tx., a small Houston suburb, which she described as “predominantly Christian conservative and very sheltered.”
Reinsmith said many of her high school classmates rarely ventured outside city limits, and she, like Charlotte, was shocked by college life.
“After a lot of my friends left The Woodlands, they were startled by the open way other people dealt with social issues, especially sex, at college,” she said. “They didn’t really know how to approach the issue because they were never taught how.”
Once again, an actual student at an actual elite university agreeing with the accuracy of Tom Wolfe’s characters.
posted Wednesday, December 01, 2004