Charlie Wales has returned to Paris after a three-year absence in the hope of taking his nine-year-old daughter, Honoria, back to live with him in Prague. He remembers with regret that his former life in Paris was a life of dissipation and wildly extravagant spending. Paris then was awash with Americans who had achieved almost instant wealth on the stock market. The Paris to which Charlie returns, however, is a changed Paris, now almost empty of Americans because most of those who had lived so extravagantly had lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929. Charlie himself has come back a changed man. He has replaced his wild, drunken sprees with the stable life of a successful businessperson who consciously takes only a single drink each day to help keep the idea of alcohol in proportion in his mind. He hopes that the change will convince Marion Peters, his sister-in-law, to relinquish to him the legal guardianship of Honoria, which Marion assumed at the death of Charlie’s wife, Helen.
Marion has persisted in unfairly holding Charlie responsible for the death of his wife. Charlie and Helen had argued while dining out one night in February, and he had gone home without her, locking the door behind him, not knowing that she would arrive there an hour later, wandering about in slippers in a sudden snowstorm and too drunk to find a taxi. As a result, Helen had barely escaped pneumonia, and Marion has never forgiven Charlie, taking the scene as typical of their turbulent life together. Charlie must now break through Marion’s reservations to the maternal part of her nature, which Charlie knows must acknowledge that Honoria’s proper place is with her father. Charlie fears that if he does not get his daughter soon, he will lose all of her childhood and she will learn from her aunt to hate him. He is relieved and gratified when, on an outing with him, Honoria expresses a desire to come and live with him.
Charlie knows that he can win his battle with Marion if he shows her that he is now in control of his life. She is skeptical about his even entering a bar, after his earlier extravagances, but he convinces her that his drinking is under control. During Charlie’s lush years, Marion and Lincoln had ample reason to envy his wealth, but now it is clear that his is not a precarious income based on the fluctuations of the market but rather the stable income of a hardworking businessperson and that he can indeed provide a good life for Honoria. Charlie makes it clear that he is in control of his emotions when he listens to Marion attack him one more time for his role in Helen’s death, and he calmly responds, “Helen died of heart trouble.”
Charlie has the battle won when suddenly there intrude two ghosts from his past in the form of two friends whom he cannot control. Early in his visit to Paris, Charlie leaves his address at his brother-in-law’s with a bartender in case some of his former friends want to get in touch with him. Later, when he actually encounters two of these old friends, Duncan Schaeffer and Lorraine Quarrles, he realizes how far he has progressed beyond where they still are and how uncomfortable he is in their presence. He shocks them with his sobriety and amuses them with his fatherly concern for Honoria, but they are drawn to him because he possesses a strength that they know they do not have. Charlie avoids giving them his address, but they get it from the bartender, and just as Charlie is making arrangements for Honoria’s move to Prague, into the Peterses’ home they burst as drunken reminders of Charlie’s dissipated past. Charlie, as angry as his relatives about the intrusion, rushes them out, but it is too late. The damage has been done. Marion is so upset that she retires to bed, and any further arrangements have to be postponed. The next day, Lincoln informs Charlie that they must put off any decision about Honoria for six months. Charlie sits in a bar, disillusioned and alone, but still in control of himself as he says no to a second drink and tells himself that he will come back for Honoria some day, that they cannot keep her from him forever.
Charlie Wales, the central character of “Babylon Revisited,” is a man who lived high and wildly in Paris during the late 1920’s and then lost everything with the Great Depression, including his wife and daughter. After the death of his wife—perhaps hastened when, in a drunken rage, he locked her out of their apartment during a snowstorm—Charlie had given guardianship of his daughter, Honoria, to his sister-in-law.
When the story opens, Charlie has returned to Paris to regain Honoria. Just when it seems he has convinced his suspicious relatives that he is indeed reformed, Charlie has his hopes dashed by the unexpected and disastrous arrival of two drinking companions from the bad old days. At the story’s end Charlie maintains his sobriety, determined to continue in his attempts to regain his daughter.
Once again, Fitzgerald’s theme is the waste of promise, fueled by the harmful effects of alcoholic indulgence. In this story, the theme is made explicit as Charlie comes to realize the meaning of the word “dissipate”: “to dissipate into thin air; to make nothing out of something.” Paris, the place where this wasting has taken place, is for Charlie a Babylon, a city of wasting—not only materially but morally and spiritually as well. Wales has repaired some of the effects of that dissipation—he has partially restored his finances and is once again sober—but the story ends with both Charlie and the reader uncertain if the most tragic loss can be restored and father and daughter reunited.
The character of Charlie Wales is an important part of “Babylon Revisited,” because he is believable and sympathetic, a fully rounded individual who is presented through suggestion and inference, dialogue and reference. As the story moves in and out of Charlie’s present and past, the reader comes to understand more than is openly told, largely through Fitzgerald’s selection of details.
Fitzgerald’s style in “Babylon Revisited” is remarkable: In place of the lush, romantic prose of earlier stories such as “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” he uses a spare, careful technique that conveys intense and often painful emotions through understatement and implication. The language is supple and powerful, so graceful that the reader is almost unaware of it, but a close and attentive study shows that Fitzgerald has achieved a masterpiece of the modern short story.