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...
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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 pricerises—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 evoking the darker, morally threatening qualities that distinguish it from the United States in Charlie's eyes. For Charlie, America symbolizes an energy and vitality that Paris now lacks. In the Ritz bar in the story's opening scene, he notes that the "frenzy" and "clamor" the bar had when rich Americans ruled it before the crash has been replaced by an oppressive air of boredom, emptiness, and quiet. With America's fortunes reversed by the stock market crash, the Ritz bar is "not an American bar any more'': "it had gone back into France.'' Although France is once again French, reminders of America follow Charlie throughout the story: the Peters's home is "warm and comfortably American," Marion Peters possesses the traces of a' 'fresh American loveliness,'' a fine fall day reminds Charlie of "football weather," and Lincoln Peters' first name conjures up an image of a simple and decent American far removed from Paris' luxury hotels and prowling prostitutes. This American-less Paris unsettles Charlie: "It seems very funny to see so few Americans around,'' he tells Marion. When she replies that the absence of her countrymen "delights" her, Charlie nostalgically rushes to their defense, recalling the "sort of magic" he once felt as an American in Paris.
In "Babylon Revisited" Paris is both a heaven and a hell. In two brief early scenes, Fitzgerald presents a snapshot tour of many of Paris's most famous locations, from the Hotel Ritz in the Place Vendome and the Place de la Concorde to the river Seine, the Left Bank, and Montmartre. These glimpses of the "majesty" and "magnificence" of Paris are then contrasted with its seedy tourist traps, licentious nightclubs, loose women, and money-devouring restaurants and nightspots. Against these images of Paris as both splendid icon and threat, Fitzgerald employs images of a familiar America that reminds Charlie of the home he gave up when his ill-gotten stock market windfall separated him from his moral center. Exploring Paris's streets, Charlie catches a glimpse of the effect of Paris's foreign decadence on the American values he claims to have regained: descending into a club appropriately named the Cafe of Hell, ‘‘an American couple’’ glances at him "with frightened eyes." The image of a moral or psychological hell suggested by the nightclub's name conveys the image of Paris as a dark underworld, which Fitzgerald strengthens elsewhere in the story. The "fire-red, gas-blue, ghost- green" signs Charlie sees during his first night in Paris contribute to the city's spectral, otherworldly quality in the story, and Fitzgerald later reinforces this foreboding atmosphere with the images of "bleak sinister cheap hotels," "cocottes prowling singly or in pairs," and "women and girls carried screaming with drink or drugs out of public places.'' By evoking an image of Paris as a Dantean "nightmare," Fitzgerald suggests how far Charlie had fallen in his pre-crash days as well as the dangers that still threaten him. Fitzgerald's ability to broaden Charlie's personal drama into a reflection on the free-spirited times of the twenties, the stock market crash of 1929, the dawning of the Great Depression the life of American expatriates in Paris, and the contrasts between the American and European ways of life demonstrate the depth of Fitzgerald's accomplishment in "Babylon Revisited."
Most critics of "Babylon Revisited'' have agreed with Fitzgerald's own high estimation of the story as "magnificent." The story has been occasionally criticized for its melodramatic touches and imperfect structure, but the majority of critics have regarded it among the very best of the 160-odd stories Fitzgerald wrote during his career. In his 1964 analysis of the story, Thomas Staley focuses on Fitzgerald's exploration of the theme of time. The struggle between Charlie's irrevocable past and his uncertain present leaves him in the end "suspended in time," with only a "future of loneliness" before him. Staley shows that Fitzgerald was "particularly preoccupied'' with the theme of time by tracing the story's temporally oriented language, from the title itself, which refers back to the biblical city of ancient Mesopotamia, to the images of movement through time that pervade the story. Charlie's battle with time is reflected in such lines as "he wanted to jump back a whole generation,'' "a crowd who had helped them make months into days''; "the present was the thing"; or "It's a great change." For Staley, the story's conclusion offers Charlie little real hope; he will remain "suspended" between the past, present, and future—without Honoria.
In his 1973 interpretation of the story, David Toor also argues that the story ends negatively, on a note of "almost total despair.'' For Toor, "Babylon Revisited" is the unambiguous story of Charlie's "self-destruction" as a result of his "warped" delusion that he has recovered from his past and is deserving of a second chance with Honoria. All Charlie's problems stem from his inability to love, Toor argues, and Charlie repeatedly refuses to confront his guilt for Helen's death, his continuing dependence on alcohol, and his misguided belief that giving money away and giving love are the same thing. For Toor, Charlie's point of view is completely unreliable, self-justifying, and manipulative, and he neither deserves nor will ever win custody of Honoria. In a 1982 discussion of structural metaphors in Fitzgerald's short fiction, William J. Brondell argues that, like all Fitzgerald's better stories, "Babylon Revisited" contains a "deep structure'' that illuminates the thoughts and emotions of the characters. In "Babylon Revisited'' this deep structure can be understood with the aid of the "structural metaphor" of the swing or pendulum first presented in Charlie's vision of Helen swinging "faster and faster" on a swing. The swing metaphor, with its alternating, back-and-forth movement, pervades the story, which continually shifts between disappointment and exultation, past and present, action and reaction. Because Charlie has proved that he can control his reactions to the forces and events around him, Brondell argues, as a patient realist he will be rewarded with Honoria in the end when the "swing of the past [loses] its momentum."
In his 1982 article, Carlos Baker analyzes the theme of freedom and imprisonment in ''Babylon Revisited" by discussing the opposing motifs of Babylon—"the center of luxury and wickedness"—and the "quiet and decent'' home Charlie wants to raise Honoria in. Within this opposition, Baker maintains, Fitzgerald uses the imagery of keys, locks, and doors to dramatize Charlie's battle to escape the prison of his past and enter "the door of the world." Noting Fitzgerald's use of alternating interior and exterior scenes to create the threatening "Babylonian'' element that lurks behind the action of the entire story, Baker sees Charlie's final fate at the story's end as both a "lock-out" and a "locking-in." Baker also traces Fitzgerald's return to the material of "Babylon Revisited" in the late 1930s when he began work on a screenplay of the story under the name Cosmopolitan.
Source: Paul Bodine, "An Overview of 'Babylon Revisited'," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 1998. Bodine is a freelance writer, editor, and researcher who has taught at the Milwaukee College of Business.
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. Although Honoria is well, and happy enough with her small cousins, she is plainly overjoyed to see her father again. At dinner he watches her closely, wondering whom she most resembles, himself or her mother. It will be fortunate, he thinks, "if she didn't combine the traits of both that had brought them to disaster."
Marion Peters has no doubt as to whose traits must be guarded against. Between Charlie and his sister-in-law an "instinctive antipathy" prevails. In her eyes he can do nothing right. When he says how strange it seems that so few Americans are in Paris, she answers that she's delighted: "Now at least you can go into a store without their assuming you're a millionaire.'' But Charlie replies that it was nice while it lasted. "We were a sort of royalty, almost infallible, with a sort of magic around us. In the bar this afternoon,"—and here he stumbles, seeing his mistake—"there wasn't a man I knew." Marion looks at him keenly: "I should think you'd have had enough of bars.''
In Marion's mind the reference to bars has no double significance; she means only those places where drinking is done. But to the eyes of the reader, aware of Charlie's prisonlike predicament, the word might well carry an ulterior suggestiveness. For he has had enough of bars in both senses, longing instead for the freedom to live a responsible domestic life and "more and more absorbed," as he thinks next day, "by the desire of putting a little of himself into [Honoria] before she [has] crystallized utterly'' into maturity.
The bars of his incipient prison move closer on the following afternoon when he takes Honoria to lunch and afterwards to a vaudeville matinee at the Empire. That morning he has awakened to a bright fall day that reminds him, as it so often reminded Fitzgerald, of football games. Charlie is naturally optimistic, sanguine by temperament, at least in the mornings. The gloom closes in when two ghosts from his past—Duncan Schaeffer and Lorraine Quarrles—intrude on the father-daughter colloquy, first at the restaurant and then at the theater. He puts them off as well as he can: they are the counterforce to all he now longs for. Going home in the taxi, Honoria says firmly that she wants to live with him. His heart leaps up. When he has delivered her to the apartment, he waits outside for her to show herself at the window. She appears, warm and glowing like an image of domesticity, and throws him a kiss in the dark street where he stands.
On his return that evening, Marion meets him with "hard eyes." She is wearing a black dinner dress that faintly suggests mourning, possibly for her dead sister. Although he understands that he will "have to take a beating," Charlie supposes that if he assumes "the chastened attitude of the reformed sinner," he may be able to carry the day and win the right to his daughter, despite Marion's legal guardianship. But she remains obdurate. Never in her life, she tells him, can she forget that early morning when Helen knocked at her door, "soaked to the skin and shivering," with the news that Charlie, in drunken and jealous anger, had locked her out in the snow, where she had been wandering in slippers, "too confused to find a taxi.''
Once again the imagery of keys and locks and doors rises into view. Seeing that Marion has "built up all her fear of life into one wall and faced it toward him," Charlie can only swallow his protestations. When he points out in a dull voice that Helen, after all, "died of heart trouble," she picks up and echoes the phrase as if—unlike her earlier reference to "bars''—this one of "heart trouble" has "another meaning for her." But she has reached the end of her tether. "Do what you like!" she cries, springing from her chair. "... You two decide it. I can't stand this. I'm sick. I'm going to bed."
Next day when Charlie lunches with Lincoln Peters, he finds it difficult "to keep down his exultation." The two men agree to a final conference that evening to settle all details. But Charlie's past cannot be shed so easily. Back at his hotel he finds a pneu from Lorraine Quarrles, reminding him of their drunken exploit in stealing a butcher's tricycle and pedalling round the etoile until dawn. "For old time's sake," she urges him to meet her at the Ritz that afternoon at five.
Lorraine as temptress has lost her charm for Charlie. At five he leaves instead for the Rue Palatine for what will amount to the obligatory scene of the story. Honoria, who has been told that she is to go with her father, can scarcely contain her delight. Even Marion seems at last to have "accepted the inevitable." Charlie nods to Peters' offer of a drink: "I'll take my daily whisky." The wall that Marion erected against him has fallen now. The apartment is warm—"a home, people together by a fire," the ideal of domesticity that Charlie would like to establish on his own for his child.
At this point comes the long peal at the doorbell and the sudden intrusion of Duncan Schaeffer and Lorraine, drunken, word-slurring, "hilarious ... roaring with laughter." When Charlie introduces his old friends, Marion freezes, drawing back toward the hearth, her arm thrown defensively around her daughter's shoulders. After he has gotten rid of the intruders, Charlie notices that she has not moved from the fire. Both of her children are now standing in the maternal shelter of her arms. Peters is still playfully "swinging Honoria back and forth like a pendulum from side to side"—a gesture to which Fitzgerald plainly attaches symbolic significance and one that even echoes, though doubtless by chance, the very words of the prisoner of Chillon. Once more, in a telling repetition of first effect, Marion rushes from the room. She is in bad shape, as Peters returns to say. Dinner is out of the question and Charlie must go.
Charlie got up. He took his coat and hat and started down the corridor. Then he opened the door of the dining-room and said in a strange voice, "Good night, children."
Honoria rose and ran around the table to hug him.
"Good night, sweetheart," he said vaguely, and then trying to make his voice more tender, trying to conciliate something, "Good night, dear children."
The story returns to its opening locale. In the grip of his anger, Charlie hopes to find Lorraine and Duncan at the Ritz bar. But they have done their sorry work and vanished from his life. He orders a whisky and chats idly with the bartender about times past. Once more the memory of those days sweeps over him like a nightmare—the incoherent babbling, the sexual advances, "the women and girls carried screaming with drink or drugs out of public places," or the men like himself "who locked their wives out in the snow'' on the theory that "the snow of twenty-nine wasn't real snow. If you didn't want it to be snow, you just paid some money."
Another lock-out is imminent, which will also amount to a locking-in. When Charlie telephones, Lincoln Peters is compassionate but firm: "Marion' s sick.... I know this thing isn' t altogether your fault, but I can't have her go to pieces about it. I'm afraid we'll have to let it slide for six months." Charlie returns to his table. Although he tells himself that "they couldn't make him pay forever,'' he knows he must serve a further sentence in the prison of his days. But he is "absolutely sure that Helen wouldn't have wanted him to be so alone."
Source: Carlos Baker, "When the Story Ends: 'Babylon Revisited'," in The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald: New Approaches in Criticism, edited by Jackson R. Bryer, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1982, pp. 269-77.
‘‘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 or in his psychological state. There is obviously a change in Charlie's fortunes and psychological state after Marion relents and yields to Charlie's request for custody of Honoria. But then of course the story continues; and just as his desires are to be fulfilled, the "ghosts" out of the past intervene and turn Charlie into a victim instead of a victor—his fortunes change and his spirit falls. But clearly, Charlie's loneliness at the end of the story is appropriate only if he has been deprived of Honoria, as happened in the climax in Scene six, Section IV.
Even though some disagree with Seymour Gross's interpretation [in College English, Nov. 1963] of the ultimate meaning of the story, his reading of "Babylon Revisited'' remains the most judicious and detailed appraisal of the relationships between the structure and the theme—so detailed that the following examination of the deep structure and the structural metaphor will be but a fine-tuning of his argument and a moderation of his gloomy interpretation. Gross notices, analyzes, and expands on the structural "maneuvers'' Fitzgerald uses to achieve the unity and coherence that raises this story above the others. Since "Babylon Revisited" is essentially a story of Charlie's character, Gross correctly sees Charlie as having attained the fundamental state of a man of character, a "quiet power over himself.'' But despite this self mastery, Charlie needs "his daughter back to give shape and direction to his renascence, to redeem his lost honor, and in a sense to recover something of his wife." Charlie's failure to accomplish this "crushes any lingering hopes'' that he might have had, and leaves him with nothing to do "but turn for comfort to the dead for whom time has also stopped." Gross's attention is focused primarily on the superstructure and on the action moved along by the extensive parallels between the sections of that structure; as a result, he sees the story as a tightly woven yet simple description of a man cruelly and unjustly denied both his daughter and his honor. A brief analysis of the deep structure of Charlie's internal life and the special metaphor that informs the deep structure suggest that "Babylon Revisited" is indeed a story on two levels: the exterior level which describes Charlie's unsuccessful attempt to reclaim his daughter Honoria; and an interior level which describes Charlie's successful attempt to prove his reformation and thus reclaim his lost honor.
As in "The Freshest Boy,’’ the structural metaphor in "Babylon Revisited'' to be found immediately prior to the climax, informs both the superstructure and the deep structure. At the end of Section III, after Marion has agreed to relinquish her custody of Honoria, Charlie returns to his rooms in an "exultant'' state of mind. But immediately, he discovers that he cannot sleep, because the "image of Helen haunted him." He begins to review their stormy relationship, and especially the particulars of the night when he, in a pique of jealous anger, locked her out in the snow. He then recalls the aftermath and all its horrors, the superficial "reconciliation," and the eventual death of his wife—"martyrdom," as Marion would have it. The memories are so strong and become so real that Charlie imagines that Helen talks to him. She reassures him that she also wants him to have custody of Honoria, and she praises him for his reformation. Then she says a "lot of other things—friendly things—but she was in a swing in a white dress, and swinging faster and faster all the time, so that at the end he could not hear clearly all that she said.'' This image of Helen in the swing emanates throughout the story's superstructure. Just as the dream of his dead wife in a white dress (suggestive of the innocent past of long ago) swings into his mind to restrain his "exultation," so the sins of the past, in the shape and form of Lorraine and Duncan, will appear in Section IV to dash his hopes for the custody of Honoria. Similarly, the action of the swing reflects the pacing of the action in the climactic section: its faster and faster movement implies the quick arrival and departure of Lorraine and Duncan, Marion's abrupt change of heart, and the sudden reversal of Charlie's fortunes.
The metaphor with its back and forth motion not only serves to describe and motivate the climax, but also marks the progress of the action which precedes and follows the climax. From the beginning to the end, the plot is characterized by a series of alternating currents from the past to the present. Higgins has suggested that there are three interwoven movements in the story: "A continual reciprocating movement between his old and new world'' in a series of seven scenes; "an in-and-out movement among past, present and future"; and the movement of Charlie's "emotional alternations between optimism and pessimism, hope and disillusion." Clearly, every contact with the past seems to dampen Charlie's spirits or to cloud his expectations, or to defeat his hopes. Just as clearly, the swing functions as a metaphor of the intrusion of the past and reinforces the theme of man's inability to escape the consequences of his past behavior. Furthermore, because of its insistent continual motion, the metaphor seems to suggest that as long as Charlie's life continues, he will, like Sisyphus, almost reach the moment of joy; but something out of the past will turn him away. As Thomas Staley has remarked [in Modern Fiction Studies 10 (1964-65)], "Time and its ravages have left Charlie suspended in time with a nightmare for a past, an empty whiskey glass for a present, and a future full of loneliness." Or so it seems if only one level of action is examined. But as Gross has suggested, Charlie's attempt to reclaim his daughter implies an attempt to reclaim his lost honor; and the swing metaphor mirrors Charlie's efforts on this level.
According to the physics of swinging, there is a state of near-equivalence between the terminus of the forward motion and the terminus of the rearward motion. But if the swing must rely on its own momentum, the laws of gravity demand that the terminus of the succeeding motion be lower than the terminus of the preceding motion. There is a similar "balance" in the heights and depths of Charlie's emotional responses to the actions that elicit these responses. In a sense, the physical laws that control the swing are transformed into the metaphysical and ethical laws that govern Charlie's feelings. Thus for every action in the plot, there is Charlie's less-than-equal reaction—and never any overreaction. Unlike the reactions of every other character in the story, Charlie's are always under control. He may not be able to control the events of his life, but he can and does control his reactions. As he states in Section III while justifying his daily drink, "It's a sort of stunt I set myself. It keeps the matter in proportion."
Throughout the difficult inquisition in Section III, Charlie consciously restrains his natural desires to match the venom of Marion's accusations. "Keep your temper,'' he tells himself after discovering that he "would take a beating." When Marion recalls the morning after he had locked his wife out in the snow, Charlie "wanted to launch out into a long expostulation," but he doesn't. Later, he becomes "increasingly alarmed" because he feared for Honoria if she remained in the "atmosphere" of Marion's hostility. But "he pulled his temper down out of his face and shut it up inside him..." Near the end of Section III, Marion, eaten up by her prejudice against him and her inescapable memories of her sister's death, cries out, "How much you were responsible for Helen's death I don't know." Even in this desperate moment, as he feels a "current of agony'' surge through him, he "hung on to himself" and restrained his emotions—he kept "the matter in proportion." Even Marion realizes the extent of his mastery over himself: "She saw him plainly and she knew he had somehow arrived at control over the situation." In essence, by restraining his reactions, Charlie makes Marion's actions seem all the more out of control. Thus, by being more controlled and reasonable, Charlie proves his reformation and achieves a victory over Marion. For every swing of Marion's argument, Charlie swings back with a controlled response.
In the climactic fourth section the swing begins to move faster and faster, and Charlie's interior world moves in the same rhythm. The first paragraph clearly suggests this motion: "He made plans, vistas, futures for Honoria and himself, but suddenly he grew sad...." In the next breath, he says, "The present was the thing; work to do and someone to love''; and then, "But not to love too much.'' His mind is swinging back and forth in rapid succession: the hopes for the future are controlled by his thoughts of the past; the sadness of the past is restrained by the needs of the present; and over all, a sense of control, of moderation.
It is this moderation and control that characterizes Charlie's response to the devastating swing of the past that squashes his hopes for reunion with Honoria. The climax brings into clear focus the essential nature of his "character," and his mastery over his emotions. After Lorraine and Duncan materialize, Charlie's attempts to control the situation prove fruitless. At first he was "astounded," then "anxious and at a loss." Later he approaches them "as if to force them backward down the corridor," back into the past. But the momentum of their untimely visit can't be stopped; and in their swinging, they figuratively knock him out of the way: Marion changes her mind and therefore Charlie's future. His last lines in the section show the completeness of his self-control. They are peculiarly measured and restrained, not at all the farewell speech of a man who feels that he has lost everything he has ever wanted. His farewell to his daughter, "Good night, sweetheart," echoes Horatio's farewell to Hamlet; but Charlie broadens his farewell in order to lessen the possible tragic overtones: "Trying to make his voice more tender, trying to conciliate something, 'Good night, dear children.'" Undeniably, the action of the climax proves that even a man of strong character cannot control the actions and feelings of others, nor the strange, almost accidental swing of fortune; but, Charlie's reactions prove that a man who has mastery over his emotions and can control himself has a sense of integrity and honor that cannot be made hostage to the quirks of fate and the meanness of others.
In the first three sections of the story, Charlie's tactics of control and his measured responses to the actions of others accomplished their purpose. As Marion realized in Section III, Charlie is in control of the situation, and is on the point of reclaiming his daughter and redeeming his honor. But as the events of the climax show, Charlie's tactics are not enough. But by this time, his self-control is no longer just a tactic; it is clearly a habitual ethical strategy based on a strong belief in the "eternally valuable element," character. By the end of the story, he realizes that "there was nothing he could do'' about the remote and recent past, nor about the future: he is neither a pessimist nor an optimist, but a realist. From the beginning, he has known that he wanted Honoria, and in Section III, "He was sure now that Lincoln Peters wanted him to have his child." Looking back on his experience he also realizes that Marion has yielded before, and may very well yield again. Finally, as he sits in the Ritz bar considering his victories and defeats, he becomes "absolutely sure Helen wouldn't have wanted him to be so alone." All of his experiences during the last few days in Paris suggest to him that it is only a matter of time, perhaps Lincoln's "six months,’" before the swing of the past will have lost its momentum.
A large measure of the success of "Absolution," "The Freshest Boy," and "Babylon Revisited" depends on Fitzgerald's ability to portray accurately and convincingly the inner life of the characters who inhabit the stories. He has drawn, as it were, a believable picture of souls in motion. To control this motion, he has created a deep structure which traces the characters' most profound thoughts and emotions; and in these stories, he has provided a map, the structural metaphor, so that the reader may follow the motion of these souls. Using this map, the careful reader will be able to discover and feel that "special emotion" and "special experience" that is at the heart of the stories and at the center of Fitzgerald's art.
Source: William J. Brondell, ‘‘Structural Metaphors in Fitzgerald's Short Fiction,’’ in Kansas Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 2, Spring, 1982, pp. 107-11.
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 renovation may not be enough is the injustice that lies at the center of the story" [College English XXV (November, 1963)]. Both Male and Harrison point out that had Charlie not given the bartender the Peters' address at the opening of the story, Duncan and Lorraine would not have shown up there and given Marion Peters a real reason to refuse to return Honoria to Charlie.
Gross' further statement, "Nor is there anything here of that troubled ambivalence which characterizes our response to that fantastic ambiguity, Jay Gatsby," seems quite wrong, because it is precisely in the troubled ambivalence of Charlie Wales that the meaning of the story is found. But Charlie's ambivalence is not the result of the fact that, as Male argues, "his is a story of suspension between two worlds,'' although to a great extent the story is structured on the contrasts between the past, as represented by Lorraine and Duncan, and the present, in the persons of Marion and Lincoln, but in a deeper awareness of Charlie's own guilt and his inability to work it out. It is in a kind of personal psychological morality that the meaning of the story is found.
It is convenient for Charlie to blame the errors of his past for the pains of his present—and future. But Fitzgerald's world is not a world of external retribution—you are not made to pay for what you've done—not at least by a God, or in Hemingway's words, "what we have instead of God," a code, or even by a deterministic fate. The payment is self-punishment, and the ironically disastrous result of such punishment is the intensification of the feelings of guilt. There is no expiation, only the further degeneration of the mind—neurotic reinforcement of behavior that leads eventually to total insanity or a form of suicide.
Charlie Wales is not torn between the poles of two opposing worlds so much as he is torn by his own inner sense of guilt and his inability to expiate it. He is not morally renovated, only sicker and less able to cope with the guilt. In one part of him he wants his Honoria (honor) back, but in the deeper man, the guilt-ridden one, he knows he doesn't deserve her. He has exiled himself to a dream world free of past responsibilities—Prague—where he creates the fresh image of himself as a successful businessman. Of course the image cannot hold, and his distorted view of the real world leads him into delusion and jealousy: "He wondered if he couldn't do something to get Lincoln out of his rut at the bank." What kind of rut is Lincoln really in? A warm homelife that Charlie envies, children who love him, a neurotic wife, yes, but a reasonable contentment.
There are many hints through the story which point to these conclusions, and one of the most significant may be viewed as flaws in the technique of the tale. Fitzgerald chose a third-person limited point of view to tell the story, and the lapses, few as they are, are telling. All of the lapses—the shifts from limited to omniscient—are concerned with the Peters. The three most important ones directly involve Marion:
She had built up all her fear of life into one wall and faced it toward him.
Marion shuddered suddenly; part of her saw that Charlie's feet were planted on the earth now, and her own maternal feeling recognized the naturalness of his desire; but she had lived for a long time with a prejudice—a prejudice founded on a curious disbelief in her sister's happiness, and which, in the shock of one terrible night, had turned to hatred for him. It had all happened at a point in her life where the discouragement of ill health and adverse circumstances made it necessary for her to believe in tangible villainy and a tangible villain.
Then, in the flatness that followed her outburst, she saw him plainly and she knew he had somehow arrived at control over the situation. Glancing at her husband, she found no help from him, and as abruptly as if it were a matter of no importance, she threw up the sponge.
In a way these passages are indeed flaws. Certainly a craftsman like Henry James whose meanings so much depend on careful control of point of view, would not have allowed them to pass. But Fitzgerald, as much a conscious artist as he was, as in the excellent handling of such matters in The Great Gatsby, for instance, did let them pass because, I think, perhaps he might have been too involved in the problems of this tale, as he was not in Gatsby. There is the possibility that these few passages can be read as consistent with a limited third-person point of view and that these were indeed Charlie's reactions to the situation.
But what these flaws may represent is Charlie's attempt to somehow put himself in a position to account for the (subconscious) terrors that were plaguing him on this return to Babylon. All three of these cited passages are explanations of the sources of Marion's hostility and her resignation in the face of Charlie's apparent renovation. Charlie is convinced that Marion has seen that he is a changed man. But it becomes more and more clear as we examine the story that he himself was by no means convinced.
Aside from the early action of leaving the Peters' address for Duncan Schaeffer at the bar—and Charlie's subsequent denial of any knowledge of how Duncan could have found it out—we need examine in some detail what Charlie does and says through the story to understand just how completely he is caught between the psychologically necessary self-delusion that he is somehow blameless and changed, and the deeper recognition of his own guilt.
Charlie's pose, once again, is that of the reformed alcoholic, allowing himself one drink a day to prove to himself he doesn't need it. "I'm going slow these days," he tells Alix at the beginning. "I've stuck to it for over a year and a half now." The reassurance seems to ring true—it has been a long time. But in the way that he tells himself he can face and beat alcohol, he hasn't allowed himself to try to face and beat the deeper problems. He lives in Prague, adding to Alix, "They don't know about me down there.'' The dream world of escape, a foreign land where maybe Charlie too, doesn't know about himself. He is cooling it—going slow these days— even the taxi horns play the opening bars of Le Plus que Lent.
The Peters' home reminds Charlie of what he has lost. It "was warm and comfortably American." He responds inwardly to the intimacy and comfort of the children in the house, but his outward reaction, while holding his daughter close to him, is to boast to the Peters about how well he himself is doing. He has more money than he'd ever had before. But he cuts it off when he sees "a faint restiveness in Lincoln's eye." His defensive opening had been wrong, he sees, but still he persists. He boasts also about the past: "We were a sort of royalty, almost infallible, with a sort of magic around us." And twice in three lines he repeats, "I take one drink every afternoon...."
In one way Charlie is ready to admit to himself—and others—that he has a large burden of blame to carry, but too often this admission is qualified with either a denial, a shifting, or a sharing of the blame. As he looks at his daughter he silently hopes that she doesn't "combine the traits of both [Charlie and Helen] that had brought them to disaster." In his lyrical reminiscences of the past in Paris, especially about the money squandered, he tries to convince and justify himself: "But it hadn't been given for nothing." Hadn't it? The next passage is really quite confused, and although it sounds meaningful, in reality it is a pastiche of attempted self-justification and escape from responsibility:
It had been given, even the most wildly squandered sum, as an offering to destiny that he might not remember the things most worth remembering, the things that now he would always remember—his child taken from his control, his wife escaped to a grave in Vermont.
He thinks about Honoria being "taken from his control," not that "he had lost the right to her control." His wife has not "died," but has "escaped." The last part of the sentence essentially contradicts and yet reinforces the first part.
His encounters with Duncan and Lorraine demonstrate much the same kind of ineffectual self-justification: "As always, he felt Lorraine's passionate, provocative attraction, but his own rhythm was different now." After they leave the restaurant where he had been dining with Honoria, Charlie tries to separate himself from Duncan and Lorraine:
They liked him because he was functioning, because he was serious; they wanted to see him, because he was stronger than they were now, because they wanted to draw a certain sustenance from his strength.
How do we understand this in terms of his later desire to get "Lincoln out of his rut at the bank?" We can't because of Charlie's inability to admit consciously the distorted state of his mind. Once again, it is not a conflict between the past and present, between Charlie Wales and Charles J. Wales of Prague, but between Charlie and his guilt. Charles J. Wales does not really exist, except in Charlie's limited perception.
Back at the Peters' on the evening of that first encounter with these spectres from the past, he proposes that he take Honoria back with him to Prague. He again boasts about his position and how well he is prepared to care for the girl, but he knows what he is in for—and in a way he is demanding to be punished, but he will put on an act for the Peters': "if he modulated his inevitable resentment to the chastened attitude of the reformed sinner, he might win his point in the end.'' But Charlie doesn't really know what his point is.
Marion, hurt and ill herself, pushes him to further self-justification: "You know I never did drink heavily until I gave up business and came over here with nothing to do. Then Helen and I began to run around with—." He is cut short, but he can't help but bring Helen into it. When Marion blames him for being in a sanitarium while Helen was dying, "He had no answer." Marion pushed him further. "Charlie gripped the sides of the chair. This was more difficult than he expected; he wanted to launch out into a long expostulation and explanation, but he only said: "The night I locked her out—.''
When Marion asks him why he hadn't thought about what he had done before, and the damage he had caused to Honoria and himself, he again refuses to admit to the full blame:
I suppose I did, from time to time, but Helen and I were getting along badly. When I consented to the guardianship, I was flat on my back in a sanitarium and the market had cleaned me out. I knew I'd acted badly, and I thought if it would bring any peace to Helen, I'd agree to anything. But now it's different. I'm functioning, I'm behaving damn well, so far as—.
His guilt at the damage he'd done to Helen is further reflected in the fear of what his daughter might learn about him: "sooner or later it would come out, in a word here, a shake of the head there, and some of that distrust would be irrevocably implanted in Honoria."
Marion hits Charlie hardest when she verbalizes the real and deepest source of Charlie's guilt: "How much you were responsible for Helen's death, I don't know. It's something you'll have to square with your own conscience.'' And this is just what Charlie can't do. "An electric current of agony surged through him...." But his only outward response, after Lincoln's attempt to defend him, is, "Helen died of heart trouble." There is no other answer Charlie can give, for to admit consciously, even for an instant that he might really have been to blame for Helen's death might permit him to face his guilt and thus enable him to start the cleansing process that might lead back towards balance.
In the reverie of Helen that follows the bitter scene ending with Marion's agreeing to return Honoria, we find evidence of his inability to admit to his blame. "The image of Helen haunted him. Helen whom he had loved so until they had senselessly begun to abuse each other's love, tear it into shreds." He excuses himself again for the events of the night he had locked her out. "When he arrived home alone he turned the key in the lock in wild anger. How could he know she would arrive an hour later alone, that there would be a snowstorm in which she wandered about in slippers, too confused to find a taxi?" The final scene of the vision of Helen that night is again part of his ambivalent attempt and refusal to find expiation. Helen seems to comfort him with tenderness and forgiveness, except that as she swings faster and faster the forgiveness is not complete: "at the end he could not hear clearly all that she said," leaving him to delude himself into half-believing the closing words of the story about Helen forgiving him.
The remaining two sections of the story, IV and V, reinforce what has gone before. Further self-delusions of himself as cured, even a garbled version of how best to raise a daughter:
The present was the thing—work to do, and someone to love. But not to love too much, for he knew the injury that a father can do to a daughter or a mother to a son by attaching them too closely: afterward, out in the world, the child would seek in the marriage partner the same blind tenderness and, failing probably to find it, turn against love and life.
This is just the kind of distortion that Charlie's mind would drive him to. Certainly there is a base in Freudian psychology for what he says, but only in his conscious rationalization of "not to love too much," can Charlie make sense out of his own inability to love fully and completely. He is too warped to see that the only love worth having or giving is one without reservations and limits.
Reference has been made in footnotes to some of the changes in the above passages between the 1931 and 1935 versions of the story. Two of the most significant changes between the two printed versions of the story occur in part IV. Both versions open with Charlie leaving the address of the Peters' with the bartender to give to Duncan Schaeffer. Lorraine's later message reaches Charlie by different means in the two stories. In the 1931 version:
Back at his hotel, Charlie took from his pocket a pneumatique that Lincoln had given him at luncheon. It had been redirected by Paul from the hotel bar.
In the final version:
Back at his hotel, Charlie found a pneumatique that had been redirected from the Ritz bar where Charlie had left his address for the purpose of finding a certain man.
It's likely that part of the confusion results from an oversight of Fitzgerald's in revising the manuscript. But the confusion here may also be the result of Fitzgerald's intention to emphasize that Charlie was responsible for the appearance of Duncan and Lorraine at the Peters'. The "certain man" in 1935 is still Duncan at the beginning of the story. And further, that if Lincoln had given him the message, as in the earlier version, Lincoln also would have known that Charlie had given out the address, and Charlie's denial would have been seen immediately as a lie. It was important that Charlie be able to continue his self-delusion without any real fear that Lincoln would know that Charlie was responsible.
Another important change is in Lorraine's invitation to Charlie after she and Duncan have barged in at the Peters': "Come on out to dinner. Be yourself, Charlie. Come on," reads the 1931 version. The final draft: "Come and dine. Sure your cousins won' mine. See you so sel'om. Or solemn." In the TAR version Lorraine is quite drunk, obviously intended to make Marion even angrier than in the magazine version. But Fitzgerald has cut the line, "Be yourself, Charlie." It is too obvious to Lorraine in that early version that Charlie is still Charlie, but more important, it is too obvious to Charlie that he is still what he was.
The ghastly scene at the Peters' ends with Charlie getting what he was begging for subconsciously all along—Marion's rejection of his plea for Honoria. Before Charlie leaves he lies—consciously or not—to Lincoln: "I wish you'd explain to her [Marion] I never dreamed these people would come here. I'm just as sore as you are."
Charlie cannot make amends, cannot "conciliate something," as he puts it, and the story ends on a note of almost total despair. It is not by accident that his thoughts turn back to money and his imagination of the power of money. He reflects that "the snow of twenty-nine wasn't real snow. If you didn't want it to be snow, you just paid some money.'' Charlie hasn't been able to deal in love, but he has been able to handle money and the things money can produce. He still isn't convinced that the two are not equal, nor can he admit to himself the possibility that the main source of his troubles was his inability to love and that his present guilt feelings stem directly from that source. So he will turn back to the new old ways and instead of dealing with people, deal with things. "There wasn't much he could do now except send Honoria some things; he would send her a lot of things tomorrow. He thought rather angrily that this was just money—he had given so many people money...." And that's all he had given.
In the tormented inner world of Charlie Wales, the world where God could not exist and therefore not punish, and where the individual retains, if not a sense of sin, at least a sense of guilt, we find the real conflict. "Babylon Revisited" is not a story about the inability of the world to forgive and forget, or even about a man drawn back to the past and therefore unable to come to terms with the present. It is a story about self destruction, about the human mind's ability to delude itself into thinking that what it does is based on logic and reason. The story ends with only the promise of emptiness to come in Charlie's life; it ends with the lie that may lead Charlie to destruction: "He was absolutely sure Helen wouldn't have wanted him to be so alone."
Source: David Toor, "Guilt and Retribution in 'Babylon Revisited'," in Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual 1973, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and C. E. Frazer Clark, Jr., Microcard Editions Books, 1974, pp. 155-64.
[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. F. Scott Fitzgerald was particularly preoccupied with the forces of time. His personal life, together with his reading, gave him a profound sense of the importance of time with regard to self.
Fitzgerald felt the ravages of time especially in his own life, and a great deal of his fiction touches on this theme. He was less inward in his treatment of time than either Joyce or Thomas Wolfe but there is in his fiction a sense of the unity of past and present; the past is irrevocable because it brings about the reality of the present. An understanding of how Fitzgerald's concept of time informs his fiction can be illustrated by an analysis of his famous short story "Babylon Revisited." The plot of this story moves directly through time and space, and its movement conveys its theme.
The theme of "Babylon Revisited" suggests that the past and the future meet in the present; moreover, Fitzgerald also dramatically expresses Bergson' s idea that duration is the continuous progress of the past which forces into the future. In the story, Charlie Wales relives the disastrous events of his past in a few days, and he realizes in the brilliant final scene in the Ritz Bar that time is irreversible, that the empty glass in front of him is the emptiness of his whole life, past, present, and future. At the beginning of the story, Charlie intends to shuck away the memory of his past through the recovery of his lost child, but the actuality of the past has nullified this prospect from the first.
The very title of the story suggests the movement of time and space. The scene is set in the modern city along the Seine, but we are intended to recall the ancient city on the banks of the Euphrates. Charlie Wales returns to Paris in order to claim his daughter and thus give meaning and purpose to his life. But just as Charlie has changed in the three years since he left Paris, so, too, has the world he left. In the opening scene in the Ritz Bar he inquires about his former friends, but finds they have scattered, to Switzerland, to America. He notices a group of "strident queens" in the corner and is depressed because he realizes that "... they go on forever'' and are not affected by time.
Throughout Part I of the story Charlie is continually trying to turn back the clock. During dinner at the Peters' he looks across at Honoria and feels that "... he wanted to jump back a whole generation." As he walks through the Montmartre district after dinner, he recalls his dissipated life in Paris, and he realizes that his bar hopping was ‘‘an increase of paying for the privilege of slower and slower motion.’’ As he wanders the streets of Paris, Charlie Wales' attitude toward time is that of something lost. Throughout Part I all the references to time are to the past; the hope for the future remains in the background.
There is a shift of emphasis in time as Part II opens. Charlie wants to forget the horrors of the past as he has lunch with Honoria. He deliberately chooses a restaurant that is "not reminiscent of champagne dinners and long luncheons that began at two and ended in a blurred vague twilight." Today is to be a special day; today is to be isolated into the present; but this is impossible, for out of that twilight world of the past "sudden ghosts'' emerge. Two of the people who helped him to "make months into days'' confront him in the restaurant, and the past impinges on the present, and also foreshadows its impingement on the future.
In this scene present, past and future fuse. Both past and future collide as Honoria, a symbol of the future, meets Lorraine and Duncan, symbols of the lurking past. This scene in which the past and future meet in the present also foreshadows the climax of the story in Part IV, when Lorraine and Duncan invade the Peters' home and in so doing both symbolically and literally destroy the future.
Part II opens at noon when the sun is high in the air and the day is full of expectation for Charlie, but it ends as Charlie stands outside in the dark street and looks up at Honoria as she blows him a kiss "... out into the night.'' This scene also recalls the impossibility of Gatsby's dream illustrated as he stands outside in the darkness waiting for Daisy following the automobile accident in The Great Gatsby.
In Part III Charlie is aware that he will have to submit to Marion's verbal beating in order to get Honoria back. "It would last an hour or two hours...." But what is two hours in relation to a lifetime? The scene with Marion and Lincoln begins with Charlie's confidence quite high, but the des-perateness of his situation shows through the conversation. He says to Marion: "But if we wait much longer I'll lose Honoria's childhood and my chance for a home." Charlie leaves the Peters' home and crosses through the Paris streets. With the question of Honoria's coming with him still unresolved he recalls again his past and is haunted by the image of his dead wife as he crosses the Seine, the same Seine that he crossed many times three years before with his wife Helen. His spirits rise and the Seine seems fresh and new to him. The opposition of present and past is visually reinforced by the black dress that Marion wears in the present and by the white dress that Helen has on as she swings "... faster and faster all the time." But this is the Helen that emerges in a dream, out of relation with time. But even in the dream, time is present in the symbol of the pendulum swinging and swinging; Helen becomes the pendulum of time herself. Dreams momentarily take the burdens of time from Charlie; they offer him an escape from the present, distort the past, and belie the future.
Charlie wakes up to another "bright, crisp day'' as Part IV of the story opens. Separating past and present for a moment, Charlie looks to the future, believing for an instant that the past doesn't determine the future: "He made plans, vistas, futures for Honoria and himself." But this glimpse into the future is quickly thwarted by a glance backward at past visions: "Suddenly he grew sad, remembering all the plans he and Helen had made." Seeing the future as not quite real and the past as a crushed dream, Charlie thinks of the present: "The present was the thing—work to do and someone to love."
Each time Charlie's future with Honoria seems temporarily possible the past quickly snuffs out the hope. After having lunch with Lincoln, he returns to his hotel room to find a note from Lorraine. In the note Lorraine recalls that ‘‘crazy spring’’ when she and Charlie stole a butcher's tricycle. This incident again brings Charlie back to that past which in retrospect was a nightmare. Out of his feeling of repugnance for the past, symbolized in Lorraine, he quickly turns to thoughts of the future, symbolized by Honoria.
At five o'clock Charlie arrives at the Peters' and his dreams of the future seem realized; he seems to have finally defeated the past. But the final tension of past and present in the story comes to a climax. Duncan and Lorraine suddenly interrupt the discussion of plans concerning Honoria. These "blurred, angry faces" from the past emerge to destroy the future forever. "Charlie came closer to them, as if to force them backward down the corridor." It was impossible for Charlie to blot out the past. After Lorraine and Duncan leave, Charlie returns to the salon to see Lincoln "swinging Honoria back and forth like a pendulum from side to side." Whether Charlie realizes it or not, this action is visual testimony that time has placed Honoria in the hands of the Peters. Charlie leaves the house knowing full well that he is not to get Honoria; the past has spoiled the present and determined the future.
The final irony of Charlie's life is brought out in the final section of the story, Part V, which is set again in the Ritz Bar where the story opened. Paul, the bartender, points out the irony unknowingly when he says, "It's a great change...." Charlie's mind goes back to the past again, but now he sees himself in the eternal present, alone. He thinks back to a fixed period of time, the Wall Street crash, and then to the time just before that when the snow wasn't real snow. "If you didn't want it to be snow, you just paid some money." To escape from the past Charlie tried to make a life for himself and Honoria, but now he must be concerned with only the hollow thought of buying her something. As the story ends, he must escape time and reality and dream again of Helen, who he is sure "wouldn't have wanted him to be so alone." Time and its ravages have left Charlie suspended in time with a nightmare for a past, an empty whiskey glass for a present, and a future full of loneliness.
Source: Thomas F. Staley, "Time and Structure in Fitzgerald's 'Babylon Revisited',"in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. X, No. 1, Winter, 1964-65, pp. 386-88.