This is an ugly book, but it could have been even uglier, being as it is a book about the life of the mind. And protagonist Charlotte Simmons of Sparta, North Carolina is scarcely an heroic figure. Prized by her protective family and a determined teacher, Charlotte becomes an outstanding student—admitted with full scholarship to Dupont University (a fictitious Ivy League school with a Georgetown or Duke-level basketball team). She is a freshman version of Sherman McCoy of Bonfire of the Vanities, the would-be Master of the Universe. That she winds up being a victim is the key to understanding what Wolfe is up to: The clash of Greek morality (Sparta) and Greek philosophy (Dupont)—each represented weakly, I emphasize—is the theme of the novel. The life of the mind requires a new type of politics to defend it, which is terribly missing but nonetheless hinted at.
With her heavy accent and Southern, rural upbringing Charlotte might be thought an evangelical Christian. What is striking is that we fail to see Charlotte attending chapel, discussing religion, or praying—except late in the book when at home for Christmas break, she prays for her death. In fact, she was always ashamed of her family and her origins. Her glitzy (and trashy roommate) merely clarifies what she had felt before setting foot on Dupont's vaunted grounds. She even grows to disdain the spinster high school teacher who poured her being into Charlotte's thirsty intellect. What primarily explains Charlotte is her concern for her persona. Do they think her a snob, as she delivers her high school commencement address? Will they mock my accent, as she anxiously contemplates contributing a point to class discussion? Will he think me a hillbilly unworthy of the "coolest guy in the coolest fraternity," as she is being ravished? Charlotte is far more in love with her reputation than with what is truly good for her soul. To a great extent that concern is for a good reputation, but her vanity is sufficient for her to cast over all self-respect. She is a much better person when she is blunt. To the extent that her conduct might be described as virtuous, it is compromised, because she takes no pleasure in it; "virtue" as she knows it makes her miserable. She craves acceptance and looks for any rationalization to get it. Though apparently untouched by feminism, she is open to the idea (that of a former high school classmate, one who has actually "gone all the way") of making college an experiment without risks. Thus, her literally idiotic mantra, when faced with the perplexity of college life, is "I am Charlotte Simmons." (She omits her plainspoken mother's addition: "and I don't hold with thangs like 'at.") But separated from Sparta and her mother her soul is rather an open city.
In the polis of Dupont Charlotte's soul is confronted for good and ill by three students—Adam, an academically ambitious nerd and school newspaper reporter; Jo-Jo, the sole white star of the basketball team; and Hoyt, the seducing senior Big Man on Campus. From Adam, she gains a feeling of academic exhilaration she had been seeking. He introduces her to his discussion group, the Mutants, in fact a bunch of losers who make Sinclair Lewis's Thanatopsis Society of Gopher Prairie sound like a Straussian seminar. Adam wants the academic prestige his newspaper reporting, work in Africa, and class performance will yield him. And he wants to use his intellectual musings—to seduce Charlotte. Jo-Jo came to Dupont only to play basketball, but upbraided by Charlotte he begins to question his life purposes. His classes are rocks for jocks, and tutors write his papers anyway. It turns out he needs Charlotte to save himself from expulsion. Despite their shortcomings, let alone hers, Charlotte improves the character of Adam and Jo-Jo. The scenes involving Hoyt and his fraternity, with obscenities and vulgarities streaming, are as painful as hitting your head repeatedly with a ball-peen hammer. They are the farthest thing from the Christian martyr who fought Islam, St. Raymond Nonnatus, whom their fraternity honors in name. Hoyt, like many others at Dupont, know their admission into the school means they have already attained a level only others could dream of. (These graduates will be the foul-mouthed Wall Street traders at the beginning of Bonfire.) The three men of mind, spirit, and desire comprise a kind of caricature of Socrates' tripartite soul, in the Republic. They in turn reflect a greater whole, also noted by Wolfe--the stupidity, cowardice, and moral corruption of the modern university.
The faculty are wizened versions of the students. If they do the right thing, it is for the wrong reason (as is true of many of so many of Wolfe's characters). Even freshman Charlotte catches on to the superficiality of her teachers. In a neurophysiology course she boldly offers a critique of Darwin, which wins praise from her Pulitzer Prize-winning professor. She is elated. But the point of the course she is so caught up in is that all intellectual achievement and indeed all life is a neurophysiological illusion. In such a cynical atmosphere, where students think they have it made and spend their time drinking, partying, masturbating, and fornicating; athletes pretend to be students; and professors teach nihilism, reality is indeed uprooted. No wonder Charlotte lost her bearings: Both campus experience and the classroom subvert what moral and intellectual foundations she had.
If I am a tough on Charlotte, it is because I expected greater things of her. But Wolfe has his own intentions with her, and he fulfills them magnificently. Everyone associated with a university or seeking to be associated should read this novel, as should everyone considering a donation to a university. I initially thought Charlotte would be a student version of Charlie Croker, the manly hero of A Man in Full, and in a way she is. As valiant a high school teacher she had, when she poured her being into Charlotte her virtue was insufficient. Without a grounding more solid than Charlotte possessed, what virtue she had was readily destroyed. (I take this to be Wolfe's response to Allan Bloom's still immensely useful critique of the university, The Closing of the American Mind, which praised the '50s elite university too highly.) As Aristotle notes at the end of the Ethics, even the best family needs politics to protect its virtue. And politics is not a topic of discussion, let alone serious discussion, at Dupont. The dregs of the '60s and the sexualized politics of the '0s are what we see. Post-modernism (with its levels of sarcasm) is as it were a natural development in student souls. Hoyt's St. Ray fraternity's break-up of a gay rights demonstration epitomizes the lack of political seriousness. There are significant parallels that explain more about Wolfe's purposes. Charlotte is as conventional as the 1950s she appears to reflect, in mores and even clothing. When the '50s confront the '0s, the '50s lose, much as the Just Logos is defeated by the slick-talking Unjust Logos in Aristophanes' Clouds. Charlotte wants a man, but she is fickle and uncertain. She will get the right man when she discards pretense and discusses Socrates. Charlie has his women, but he will become a "man in full" only through his conversion to Greek philosophy of a particular kind. Charlie becomes an evangelist for Stoicism. Charlotte's life, by comparison, is transformed by Socrates or at any rate by her use of Socrates. Her urging Jo-Jo to take a course on Plato seemed initially to be a disaster but proves to be transformative for both of them.
For all his brilliance at portraying contemporary life, Wolfe approaches and then veers away from confronting the most important human questions, explored most profoundly by the Bible and Greek philosophy. May his next novel take the mean between Socrates and Stoicism and discover Aristotle. And may that be his opening to the Bible and an even greater flourishing of his mind.