The richness of "Babylon Revisited" as a work of fiction lies in Fitzgerald's ability to encompass so many themes while leaving the important questions about Charlie Wales' character unanswered. On the surface, the story is about a father's attempt to regain the custody of his daughter after a series of personal disasters. Critics have consistently praised the story for its authentic and affecting portrayal of the love between Charlie and Honoria, and in discussing a planned film version of the story, Fitzgerald himself later referred to "the tragedy of the father and the child'' that lies at the heart of the story. Within this basic emotional core, however, Fitzgerald dramatizes a universe of emotional, social, historical, and psychological themes. Charlie's quest to win back Honoria, for example, is also his quest to prove to himself and those who know him that he is a new man. Only a year and half before, he was an unemployed, irresponsible, spendthrift alcoholic with poor taste in friends, a broken marriage, and a malicious streak that allowed him to lock his wife out of their apartment on a winter night. He now presents himself to his sister's family, his former friends, and the reader as a "radically" changed man, once again sober and employed—"a reformed sinner'' with a new appreciation of personal character as "the eternally valuable element."
Much of the critical discussion of "Babylon Revisited" has centered on which Charlie is the "real" one. On the one hand, Charlie seems to repeatedly flirt dangerously with his past. He hangs around the Ritz bar, the gathering place for many of his former drinking partners; he leaves the Peters' address with the barman so a former drinking buddy can find him; he waxes nostalgic about the "sort of magic" he felt in his earlier inebriated days; and he returns to the nightclubs and nude revues he frequented in his previous life. On the other hand, he now holds down a well-paying job in Prague, displays a palpable love for his daughter, is clearly anguished by his wife's death and horrified at his past, breaks firmly with Lorraine Quarrles by failing to meet her at the Ritz Hotel, repeatedly displays self-control by refusing drinks, and maturely controls his anger when Marion accuses him of causing his wife's death. The ambivalence in Charlie's character is also mirrored in the ambivalence of the story's conclusion. Lorraine and Duncan's appearance has changed Marion's mind about surrendering Honoria to Charlie, and he is left alone back at the Ritz bar, replaying his guilty memory of his dissipated former life and the night he locked his wife out in the snow. His final conversation with Lincoln Peters closes the door on Charlie's plans to leave Paris with Honoria, but it also dangles the hope that "six months" from now, he'll get a second chance. The story closes with Charlie ambiguously giving in to self-pity—"He wasn't young anymore, with a lot of nice thoughts and dreams to have by himself"—but also reaffirming his own determination to win in the end: "He would come back some day; they couldn't make him pay forever."
Beyond Charlie's personal drama, "Babylon Revisited'' also explores larger social and historical issues: the contrast between Europe's decadent culture and the domesticity of traditional Americans, America's transition from the prosperity of the 1920s to the straitened conditions of the Depression, and the moral value of work versus the "free money" of the speculating investors of the "boom" years. In a scene typical of the story's fusion of narrowly personal and broadly social themes, Fitzgerald compresses Charlie's own history into the history of his generation during the boom years of the twenties. Seated at the Ritz bar after his plans for regaining custody of Honoria have begun to vanish, Charlie converses with Paul the barman about the "great change" wrought by the stock market crash the year before. When Paul mentions that he heard Charlie had lost his money in the crash, Charlie replies, "I did, but I lost everything I wanted in the boom." Paul interprets this as a reference to "selling short,'' the only sure way to lose money during a boom in the stock market. Short-selling means gambling that the price of a stock bought at a low price will fall to that price, but risking that if the price rises—as it does in a booming market—you'll be forced to ante up more money to avoid losing your original investment. Charlie understands Paul's financial allusion but plays on the other meaning of "selling short'': selling oneself short by surrendering one's principles. In this and other scenes, Fitzgerald combines Charlie's personal history with the history of his generation.
As a portrait of the city Paris in the years before World War II "Babylon Revisited'' also captures the glamorous, culturally rich flavor of that city while...
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A kind of change came in my fate,
My keepers grew compassionate,
I know not what had made them so.
They were inured to sights of woe.
And so it was:—my broken chain
With links unfastened did remain
And it was liberty to stride
Along my cell from side to side.
—Byron, "The Prisoner of Chillon''
Fitzgerald once called "Babylon Revisited'' a magnificent short story. The adjective still holds. It is probably his best. Written in December, 1930, it was first published February 21, 1931, in the Saturday Evening Post, whose editors must have recognized its superior qualities, well above the norm of the stories from his pen that this magazine had been publishing for the past ten years. Collected in Taps at Reveille in 1935, it stood proudly at the end of the volume, a memorable example of well-made short fiction.
The epigraph from Byron bears upon the story for many reasons, not least because "The Prisoner of Chillon" was the first poem that Fitzgerald ever heard, his father having read it aloud to him in his childhood, a circumstance that he recalled in a letter to his mother in June, 1930, when he paid a tourist visit to "Chillon's dungeons deep and old" while staying at Ouchy-Lausanne in order to be near Zelda, who was desperately ill in a nearby sanatorium. The story he wrote six months afterwards might have been called "Chillon Revisited,'' involving as it does the double theme of freedom and imprisonment, of locking out and locking in. For although Charlie Wales seems to himself to have redeemed his right to parenthood and to have regained his proper freedom, the links of his fetters are still visible when the story ends. And we, the keepers, inured as we are to sights of woe both inside and outside Fitzgerald's life and works, cannot help feeling compassion for this fictive prisoner, who tries so hard to measure up, only to be defeated by a past that he can never shed.
From the triple nadir of the Wall Street crash, months of recuperation from alcoholism in a sanatorium, and the death of his wife, Charlie Wales has now rehabilitated himself as a successful man of business in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and has returned to Paris in the hope of taking custody of his nine-year-old daughter Honoria, who has been living in the care of her aunt and uncle since her mother's death. He feels ready for the responsibility, since he has made another kind of comeback, having staved off drunkenness for a year and a half by the simple expedient of rationing himself to one whisky a day. All those sins of commission which led to the debacle are now, he is sure, behind him. He recognizes that while he was flinging away thousand-franc notes like handfuls of confetti, even the most wildly squandered sum was being given "as an offering to destiny that he might not remember the things most worth remembering, the things that now he would always remember": Honoria taken from him and Helen buried in Vermont.
Two motifs stand opposed in the story. One is that of Babylon, ancient center of luxury and wickedness in the writings of the Fathers of the Church. The other is that of the quiet and decent homelife that Wales wishes to establish for his child. He defines the Babylon motif as a "catering to vice and waste.'' It is what used to happen every afternoon in the Ritz bar when expatriated Americans like himself systematically hoisted glasses on the way to the ruin, moral or physical or both, that besets so many of them now. More spectacularly, it is places of decadent entertainment like the Casino where the naked Negro dancer Josephine Baker performs "her chocolate arabesques." It is squalidly visible along the streets of Montmartre, the Rue Pigalle and the Place Blanche, where nightclubs like "the two great mouths of the Cafe of Heaven and the Cafe of Hell'' used to wait, as they still do, to devour busloads of tourists, innocent foreigners eager for a glimpse of Parisian fleshpots.
Fittingly enough, it is in the Ritz bar that the story opens—and closes. The place is nothing like it used to be. A stillness, "strange and portentous," inhabits the handsome room. No longer can it be thought of as an American bar: it has "gone back into France.’’ All the former habitues are absent—Campbell ailing in Switzerland; Hardt back at work in the United States; and Fessenden, who tried to pass a bad check to the management, wrecked at last by shame and obesity. Only Duncan Schaeffer is still around Paris. Swallowing his loneliness, Charlie Wales hands the assistant bartender a note for Schaeffer including the address of his brother-in-law in the Rue Palatine. It is his first mistake. A key clicks in the prison door. Although he does not know it yet, Schaeffer will twice seek Charlie out, only to lock him into loneliness again.
At the outset Fitzgerald alternates interior and exterior scenes, with the obvious intent of providing the Babylonian background against which the principal dramatic scenes are to occur. While Charlie is on his way to the Peters's apartment in the Rue Palatine, he is most impressed by the nocturnal beauty rather than the wickedness of Paris. Bistros gleam like jewels along the boulevards, and the "fire-red, gas-blue, ghost-green signs" blur their way "smokily through the tranquil rain." By contrast, the living room at his brother-in-law's place is "warm and comfortably American," with a fire on the hearth and a pleasant domestic bustle in the kitchen....
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‘‘Babylon Revisited’’ has deservedly received more critical attention and praise than any other Fitzgerald short story, with most commentators expressing admiration for its flawless blend of a tight, balanced structure and a significant theme. The only reservation about the story's structural excellence appears in a footnote to Higgins' study of the story [in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Study of the Stories, 1971]: "The story's structure seems slightly flawed in that there are actually two dramatic climaxes, scene four and scene six." One sees a flaw only if one insists on a restricted development in the superstructure; such an emphasis traditionally demands that the climax be followed by a change in the hero's fortunes...
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Roy R. Male's perceptive article on "Babylon Revisited", [Studies in Short Fiction II (1965)] goes far in clearing up many of the unresolved problems that have recently been discussed in relation to the story. Male has pointed out, as James Harrison had shown in an earlier note [Explicator 16, (January, 1958)], that Charlie Wales is in a sense responsible for the appearance of Duncan and Lorraine at the Peters's house at precisely the wrong moment. Male has further called into serious question the general interpretation of the story, most specifically Seymour Gross' contention that Charlie has been renovated and that the punishment he suffers is brought upon him from external sources. Gross says: "That moral...
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[Immanuel] Kant wrote that time is the most characteristic mode of our experience, and, as Hans Myerhoff has pointed out [in Time and Literature, 1955], "It is more general than space, because it applies to the inner world of impressions, emotions and ideas for which no spatial order can be given." Modern fiction is preoccupied with the concept of time; [Henri] Bergson's concept of la duree realle and [Marcel] Proust's la memoire involontaire have of course, exerted a large influence on fiction; in fact their indirect influence has been enormous. Modern writers since Bergson and Proust have become increasingly aware of the implications of time in the structure of their fiction.
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