What Does it Mean to Set Your Novel at Harvard?
On The Idiot and the Evolution of the Campus Novel
Many writers have explored elite academic environments in the novel form—from literary treatments like The Marriage Plot and On Beauty to more commercial fiction like Prep and Gossip Girl—but few have investigated why they remain so compelling for American readers. Elif Batuman’s debut novel, The Idiot, is a fairly straightforward coming-of-age novel within this category that follows its central character, Selin, through her first year of college at Harvard. Like its namesake, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, the book is more concerned with the conflicts and questions its protagonist faces in the course of her development than with plot.
Batuman, who has had a long obsession with Russian literature, also named her first book, a grad school memoir collection of essays, after a Russian classic—The Possessed. Batuman’s novel is semi-autobiographical, but it wasn’t clear to me just how autobiographical until I picked up The Possessed. Many of Selin’s experiences in the book, both major and minor, from falling in love with an older math major from Hungary who she meets in Russian class to the hilarious scene in which she is pressed upon to judge an adolescent boys’ leg contest (in case you are confused by this description, it’s exactly what it sounds like—a contest in which young boys compete against each other to determine whose legs are best, or best-looking) at a Hungarian children’s summer camp, actually happened to Batuman after her first year of college at Harvard.
In a 2015 article on Flavorwire, Sarah Seltzer explained that in elite college novels, “the narrator or protagonist is often an outside observer, a middle-class type who is both entranced (sometimes too entranced) and repelled by the culture of the place. As stand-ins for the reader, these characters encompass our love-hate affair with elitism.” As a newcomer to Harvard, Selin views the community with the eyes of an outsider, but her discomfort is framed as the universal confusion any student feels when arriving at college for the first time, rather than the distinct experience of alienation within Harvard’s elite environment.
But in a time of collective awareness about the way access to institutions shapes our privilege, and privilege, in turn, shapes our trajectories, what does it mean to set a novel at Harvard? What does Harvard as a setting mean to the average American reader? As a working-class student who attended Wellesley College and felt profoundly out of place for much of my time there, these questions were at the forefront of my mind when I read The Idiot.
But Selin never reflects directly on what it means to be attending Harvard—we don’t know whether she feels proud, intimidated, entitled, or impressed. Batuman largely sidesteps this topic, opening the book with a description of using e-mail for the first time in college. Her aunt tells her, “You’ll be so fancy, sending your e, mails [sic],” situating the setting in a time of general transformation and technological development rather than one of heightened inequality between groups. No one comments on whether she will be fancy because she is attending Harvard, specifically. But it seems impossible to write about elite academic environments without writing about class privilege. In the average American’s understanding, Ivy League schools represent both the ultimate vehicle of class mobility, because they are seen as ostensibly accessible guarantors of future success, and the upper limits of power and privilege, because in reality, the doors to these institutions are closed to all but a select few. Even the physical reality of these settings—buildings like crumbling castles, moth-eaten velvet drapes in drafty hallways, and stained glass windows dedicated to the sort of rich white men we’d like to pretend don’t still control our country—call to mind images of wealth and privilege.
A recent report in the New York Times detailed just how far this educational inequality extends. For the top 2,000 or so colleges in the United States, large research university and small liberal arts college alike, the study revealed what percentage of students came from the top 1%, 10%, and so on, of the American population. The rankings themselves may have come as a surprise (who knew that 21.7% of students at Washington University in St. Louis came from the top 1%?), but the overall takeaway was that the elite American university was not the ladder to social mobility it was once purported to be. Rather, it’s a gatekeeper of economic inequality—a bastion for wealthy adolescents to meet those who will form the bedrock of their professional networks in their adult lives, reproducing the mostly static socioeconomic structure of America.
At Harvard, the median family income of a student is $168,800, compared to the overall median household income in the United States of $51,939. Fifteen percent of Harvard students come from the top 1%, while just 4.5% come from the bottom 20%. This latter rate is, perhaps surprisingly, among the highest for Ivy League colleges. Twenty-one percent of Harvard graduates end up in the top 1% later in life, which is considered “about typical” compared to other Ivy League schools. Among Ivy League schools, Harvard is not the highest ranked for median family income or share of students from the top one percent: it’s outflanked in those categories by Brown, Dartmouth, Yale, and Princeton, among others. But Harvard is widely seen as the most famous, the most prestigious, and the most privileged environment of them all. Separate from these statistics is the perception the American public holds of Harvard and other elite colleges, and much of this perception is drawn from their portrayals in popular culture, including literature.
In The American College Novel: An Annotated Bibliography, John Kramer lists and describes nearly 650 college novels published from the mid-19th century to 2002. Harvard (and Radcliffe) is by far the institution featured in the largest number of college novels, according to Kramer, with 77. The next closest is Yale, with only 32. Based on his summaries, it appears that only four of the 55 novels deemed by Kramer to be “student-centric” feature a poor or working-class protagonist confronting the privileged environment of Harvard. The great majority of the rest mentioned “wealthy” students or “society” families, demonstrating that questions of wealth and class can never truly be separated from discussions of elite universities. The first large chunk of Harvard books, from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, seemed mostly concerned with depicting the hijinks of young Harvard men. Phrases like “escapades,” “revelry,” “larking about,” and “charming prankster” dot the synopses for these books, proof that early writers of Harvard novels were mostly concerned with chronicling the experiences of upper crust offspring at a university that has functioned as a playground for the rich through much of history.
One of the most famous and widely-read novels of recent years depicting an elite academic environment is The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, published in 1992. Like The Idiot, The Secret History follows its protagonist’s first year in an elite academic environment (probably Bennington College in southern Vermont), in which the main character studies a foreign language (in this case ancient Greek), and that language and its culture begins to structure the way the protagonist sees the world and forms relationships with others. Unlike The Idiot, The Secret History deals far more explicitly with class identity, and with being confronted by wealth and privilege for the first time in one’s life. The setting of The Secret History is a vehicle to explore these themes and dynamics, while in The Idiot the first year of college is not merely the backdrop to the book; it is in many ways the point.
It would be inaccurate to say that The Idiot prioritizes telling a story about economic stratification and privilege—although other recent Harvard novels have attempted to do just that—but because of its choice of setting, the commentary it does provide on the topic is meaningful. One of the brilliant things about Batuman’s novel is that she is able to convincingly tell the entire story from Selin’s perspective, in Selin’s voice—so the concerns of the book are the concerns of a precocious and intellectual 18-year-old, no more and no less. Because Selin is a middle-class student who grew up in suburban New Jersey, the child of Turkish immigrants, she doesn’t experience her insecurities as a product of her class position. She is sometimes intimidated by how worldly and accomplished her classmates are, how well-traveled they are, the specificity of their interests and the extent to which they have already pursued and defined them at such a young age, but this is not necessarily portrayed as tied to class.
The closest new friend she makes, Svetlana, is an eccentric young woman from Serbia obsessed with psychoanalysis and love. Selin and Svetlana meet in Russian class, and one of the first times they hang out, they go to CVS to buy supplies for an art project. Svetlana tries to pay, telling Selin, “My family has a lot of money.” Selin is confused. “I didn’t understand what she meant. Didn’t we all have a lot of money? I counted out the change for exactly half of everything, except the laryngitis tea. ‘If you say so, but you’re being crazy,’ Svetlana said, pocketing the money and paying with a credit card.” Over the summer, at the end of their first year, Selin joins Svetlana on a trip to Paris where they stay with Svetlana’s aunt in a large and well-appointed apartment overlooking the Seine.
Although Selin gains a broader understanding of the difference in their material circumstances on this trip, she still groups herself with Svetlana in opposition to other Harvard students who are less privileged than either of them. Later in the summer, when the two have gone their separate ways—Selin to teach English in Hungary and Svetlana on to Italy with her friends and then Belgrade with her family—they speak on the phone about the time they’ve spent apart, and Svetlana reflects on their friendship and what they have in common, musing that both of them like to make up narratives about their lives. Selin tells her that “everyone makes up narratives about their own lives.”
“But not to the same extent,” Svetlana responds. “Think about my roommates. Fern, for example. I don’t mean that she doesn’t have an inner life, or that she doesn’t think about the past or make plans for the future. But she doesn’t compulsively rehash everything that happens to her in the form of a story. She’s in my story—I’m not in hers. That makes her and me unequal, but it also gives our relationship a kind of stability, and safeness. We each have our different roles. It’s like an unspoken contract. With you, there’s more instability and tension, because I know you’re making up a story, too, and in your story I’m just a character.”
“But I don’t think that’s because of our personalities,” I said. “Isn’t it more about how much money our parents have? You and I can afford to pursue some narrative just because it’s interesting. You could go to Belgrade to come to terms with your life before the war, and I could go to Hungary to learn about Ivan. But Fern has to work over the summer.”
This passage, in which Selin, and by turns, Batuman, boils down her process of personal development to the pursuit of “some narrative,” all while acknowledging that only economic privilege makes this possible, is key to the novel. With it, Batuman slips in a subtle critique of coming-of-age novels that focus on privileged characters, and cleverly challenges the assumption that those who have the money and time to “find themselves” are more introspective or complex.
Although the book as a whole is not dedicated to exploring Harvard’s role as an elite academic institution, Batuman is a self-aware enough writer not to take this for granted. Readers drawn to the book for what Seltzer called “our love-hate affair with elitism” may be disappointed by its minimal commentary on this aspect of Harvard, but Batuman’s effortlessly compelling writing voice allows the book to transcend its setting—even if it can never truly be separated from it.
As depictions of Harvard and other elite institutions continue to add illustrations to the ever-evolving landscape of class identity and academic privilege in America, and readers remain engrossed in them, it’s important to be mindful of how literature can both reflect and shape contemporary culture. A deeper understanding of the role that elite education plays in our society, and its reality for those who are products of its environment, may change the extent to which we valorize or idealize these institutions. Batuman’s choice to explicitly situate her novel in an environment that symbolizes wealth and success, while simultaneously rendering the specificity of that setting beside the point, represents in some sense a clever subversion of the genre of the elite campus novel.