An Overview of "Babylon Revisited"
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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