Throughout the 1930s, Fitzgerald suffered guilt by association for his early identification with the "flappers and philosophers'' of the so-called Jazz Age. In the years of the Great Depression Fitzgerald's identification with the comparatively carefree 1920s rendered him irrelevant in the opinion of readers who were now enduring rather hardscrabble lives. Moreover, with "The Crack-up," a series of essays published in Esquire magazine in the mid-1930s, readers who were accustomed to seeing Fitzgerald's cleverly phrased romantic entertainments in the "slick" magazines now discovered a writer who bluntly described himself as a "cracked plate," an alcoholic has-been whose best days were behind him. With his move to the glitzy, superficial world of Hollywood in the late 1930s, Fitzgerald's critical reputation reached its low tide, and it was not until the decade after his death that his work was seriously reevaluated. From the beginning of the Fitzgerald "revival" in the 1950s, "Babylon Revisited" was regarded among Fitzgerald's best short stories, and the first critics to analyze it at length focused on the problem of Charlie's character. Some argued that Charlie's failure to regain custody of Honoria was a direct result of his decision to leave the Peters's address with the Ritz bartender. Others maintained that throughout the story, Charlie demonstrated a convincing and even heroic self-mastery and that his ultimate loss of Honoria was therefore the fault of the external world and the unwillingness of Marion, Duncan, and Lorraine to believe that Charlie had truly left his irresponsible past behind.
In more recent criticism, the story's ambiguity has been interpreted as the story's central theme and strength. Recent critics have also begun to more fully explore the story's sophisticated structure. Fitzgerald, for example, successfully used the image of the pendulum and the swing, as well as repeated shifts between present-tense action and references to Charlie's past, to create a sense of back-and-forth movement that perfectly reflects Charlie's own constantly rising and falling hopes. The story's heightened sense of tension or ambiguity and its multiple potential meanings, combined with the sheer emotional pull of Fitzgerald's characters and plot, may account for the critics' s continued fascination with "Babylon Revisited."
In spite of the disagreements over Charlie's character or the themes or structure of the story, virtually all critics have regarded "Babylon Revisited" among Fitzgerald's finest stories. While a few critics have noted traces of pop fiction melodrama in the story, as well as flaws in its structure and point of view, more have described it as nearly perfect, and one has even labeled it "among finest short stories of the twentieth century." Among the aspects of the story that have received the most praise are Fitzgerald's dramatization of the father-daughter relationship; his evocation of Paris as the story's setting and major metaphor; and his deft use of such metaphors and images as the swing and pendulum and doors, locks, and bars (in both senses). Above all, Fitzgerald has been praised for balancing depth of theme with economy of plot, creating a richly evocative atmosphere and realistic dialogue, and sustaining a measured tone of restraint and ambiguity.
Many elements of "Babylon Revisited" were drawn from Fitzgerald's own life: his knowledge of Paris from his several trips there with his wife Zelda in the 1920s, his lifelong battle with alcoholism, his affection for his daughter, Scottie (the model for Honoria), his preoccupation with money and affluence, his interest in America and its history and identity, and Zelda's absence due to mental illness, which served as a template for the absence in the story of Charlie's wife, Helen. Among the themes explored in the story are...
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freedom and imprisonment, sin, guilt and retribution, alcoholism and self-discipline, self-mastery, responsibility and personal character, greed, envy and money, love, the abandonment of traditional American values, and the irrevocability and burden of the past.
By the time Fitzgerald published "Babylon Revisited" in 1931 he had long since established himself as a regular contributor to America's most popular "slick" magazine, The Saturday Evening Post. By 1929 his per-story fee had climbed to $4,000, and 1931 proved to be his most profitable year ever as a writer. According to critic Morris Dickstein, however, "Babylon Revisited," perhaps because of the seriousness of its themes, was repeatedly rejected by the magazine editors who had previously craved Fitzgerald's more superficial, "flapper" stories. When "Babylon Revisited" was finally published in the Post's February, 1931 issue, it received a large national readership though no formal reviews from critics. In late 1934 and early 1935, Fitzgerald gave his own critical estimation of the story by choosing it as the last story in his fourth short story collection, Taps at Reveille. Critics received the collection positively but urged Fitzgerald to write more serious stories worthy of his talents.
At the time of his death in 1940, few of Fitzgerald's books were popular. In the early 1950s, a Fitzgerald revival began, partly based on word-of-mouth enthusiasm for such works as The Great Gatsby that caused critics and scholars to pay his novels new attention. Later, his stories began to spark new critical interest. "Babylon Revisited'' in particular began to emerge as Fitzgerald's most admired short story, a fact reflected in his publisher's decision in 1960 to reprint some of his stories under the title Babylon Revisited and Other Stories. By 1979, "Babylon Revisited" had been selected for inclusion in sixty-three short story anthologies—far more than any other Fitzgerald story—and had become the object of much scholarly analysis.
Although the attitude of most critics toward "Babylon Revisited" has been reverent, not all have viewed it as a flawless work. In 1962, Arthur Mizener, a Fitzgerald biographer, contrasted Fitzgerald's decision to use the third-person voice for the narrator to Joseph Conrad's more effective first-person style in his classic tale "Heart of Darkness.'' In 1971, John Higgins claimed that Fitzgerald had "slightly" injured his story by deciding to insert two climaxes rather than the one turning point found in most short stories. Two years later, David Toor noted that the story's third-person narration resulted in "flaws in the technique," mainly that the point of view shifts, allowing the narrator to know things that Charlie probably could not know. In 1981, Matthew Bruccoli noted that the story's autobiographical aspect showcased Fitzgerald's "considerable self-pity," and a year later Kenneth Eble, though praising the story's effectiveness, detected "shades of melodrama '' that detract from its power.
Another group of critics has explored the changes that Fitzgerald made in the story's text between its first publication in 1931 and its appearance in the collection Taps at Reveille four years later. In the first version of the story, for example, when Charlie jokes to Alix that, luckily for him, the people in Prague "don't know about me," Fitzgerald has Charlie "smile faintly" at his own wit. In the 1935 version, Fitzgerald changes this to "Alix smiled," suggesting that perhaps the joke is really on Charlie. Similarly, in the 1931 version, after Lorraine and Duncan barge in at the Peters', Lorraine tries to get Charlie to join them for dinner and says, "Be yourself, Charlie. Come on." In 1935 Fitzgerald replaced this with a line that reinforces Lorraine's drunkenness: "Come and dine. Sure your cousins won't mine. See you so seldom. Or solemn." Likewise, in the earlier version, Fitzgerald had Charlie explain Lorraine and Duncan's sudden appearance by saying they "wormed" the Peters' address "out of Paul at the bar." In the 1935 version Fitzgerald made Charlie's explanation more vague and uncertain: "They wormed your name out of somebody." Finally, in the 1931 version, after Lorraine and Duncan leave, Fitzgerald had inserted a line in which Lincoln is seen "somewhat uneasily occupying himself by swinging Honoria from side to side with her feet off the ground." In the 1935 version, Fitzgerald deleted this passage but failed to cut the word still in the subsequent line, "Lincoln was still swinging Honoria back and forth like a pendulum’’—introducing a source of possible confusion for later readers.
Several aspects of "Babylon Revisited" have received special critical attention. The story's style has been widely praised as demonstrating a masterly, nuanced restraint and its structure has been consistently hailed as tightly balanced and unified. The gravity of its themes has also received special notice. In the span of a twenty-page story, Fitzgerald manages to touch on such themes as time and the inescapableness of the past, money and envy, the abandonment of traditional values, sin and guilt, honor and integrity, freedom and imprisonment, self-delusion, self-pity, parental and romantic love, and emotional bankruptcy and isolation.