Babylon Revisited by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1931
by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1931
In a letter to his daughter, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "I not only announced the birth of my young illusions in This Side of Paradise but pretty much the death of them in some of my last Post stories like 'Babylon Revisited."' While "Babylon Revisited" was not in fact among his last stories published in the Saturday Evening Post, he did place it at the end of Taps at Reveille, and it stands at the end of his career as well: he was working in Hollywood on a film version of the piece when he died.
Chronologically the story fits nicely into the middle of Fitzgerald's career. He wrote it in December 1930, a decade after the publication of his first novel and ten years before his death. Its setting of Paris during the Great Depression recalls the story "The Bridal Party"; its self-destructive hero suggests Bill McChesney of the earlier "Two Wrongs" and Dick Diver of the later Tender Is the Night, both of them, like Charlie Wales, modified self-portraits of their creator.
The meeting of the author's past and future in the story highlights the central concern of "Babylon Revisited": the protagonist's desire to recover something important that he has lost. In the late 1920s Charlie Wales joined the crowds of rich Americans in Paris, the Babylon of the title, in their dissipated, extravagant behavior. He loses his money in the crash of 1929, but by then his wife has died; his child, Honoria, has been taken from him; and his drinking has landed him for a time in a sanitarium. As he tells Paul, the bartender at the Ritz, "I lost everything I wanted in the boom."
Charlie returns to Paris from Prague, where he has again become financially successful. He is intent on reclaiming his daughter, whose name represents the honor he has lost and wants to recover. She also stands for his hopes for the future. Honoria is being cared for by Marion Peters, Charlie's sister-in-law, and her husband, Lincoln. Their names, too, are emblematic, Lincoln standing for the older American values that Charlie senses in their presence. Significantly, Lincoln did not share in the prosperity and dissipation of the 1920s. The Peterses are solid, as the Latin derivation of their name, petrus ("rock"), implies. Before they will surrender custody of Honoria, they want proof that the former goodtime Charlie has become what he and only he calls himself—the sober Charles.
Charlie willingly confronts his past, returning to the bar at the Ritz where he had spent so much of his time and money. The opening scene establishes Charlie as a survivor: all the other members of the old crowd have succumbed to death, disease, or disgrace. Charlie demonstrates his strong character by taking one drink, but only one, to show that he can confront temptation without reverting to his former self. Yet questions about his reformation linger. In the evening when he rides past his former haunts, he no longer finds them alluring, but he does buy a ticket to watch chanteuse Josephine Baker's nude dancing. He also "incautiously [puts] his head inside" an "ancient rendezvous" before retreating, and he leaves his in-laws' address for Duncan Schaeffer and Lorraine Quarles, "ghosts out of the past" who will return to wreak their revenge.
Although Marion's doubts about Charlie's transformation are not groundless, much of her resentment derives from jealousy. Charlie prospered without working, while the Peterses worked hard and earned far less. Now again Charlie is riding high. Marion reluctantly agrees to give up Honoria until Duncan and Lorraine appear, drunk as usual, at the Peterses' apartment. The ghosts of Charlie's past destroy his opportunity, at least for a while. In the final scene Charlie remains faithful to his code of taking only one drink, despite the temptation to drown his grief. He asks the bartender what he owes; Charlie is willing to pay for his drinks and his mistakes, but he thinks, "They couldn't make him pay forever."
Charlie's plight mirrors that of his country and his creator, deluded for a time by an overeasy prosperity and trying to regain the values lost during that strange interlude. He discovers that the past cannot be obliterated. In the 1920s it seemed that dollars or francs could do anything: "If you didn't want it to … snow, you just paid some money." Now he recognizes, in T.S. Eliot's words, "Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future." Two images reenforce this motif of time. At the end of the third section, Charlie dreams of his wife, Helen, "swinging faster and faster," like a pendulum, and in the fourth section Lincoln Peters swings Honoria "back and forth" in the same way.
Fitzgerald creates sympathy for Charlie by emphasizing his history of hard work and his devotion to Honoria. The third-person point of view nevertheless creates an objective distance that allows the reader to recognize Charlie's past errors and present flaws. The organization of the story also reveals Fitzgerald's careful crafts-manship. Its five sections correspond to the five acts of a play, and the first, second, and fourth move from light to darkness, with the fifth set entirely at night. Only the middle section partially and temporarily reverses this progression, as Charlie is at the height of his fortune, having secured Marion's consent to take Honoria. Yet even this section concludes, like all the others, with Charlie's isolation. Structure thus intensifies the melancholy mood that pervades the story.
Like the future of the United States and Fitzgerald, Charlie's prospects remain unclear. Unlike Bill McChesney of "Two Wrongs" and Dick Diver of Tender Is the Night, Charlie perseveres. Yet he ends where he began—in the bar of the Ritz, alone. Not least among the charms of "Babylon Revisited" is its open-endedness. Will Charlie's Babylonian exile end in restoration or ruination?