F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories were well-known to reflect his and his family’s personal history. They were, to greater or lesser extents, autobiographical. Certainly, his 1931 story “Babylon Revisited” was closely based upon how own life. In fact, it mirrors his life to an astonishing degree. It also, unsurprisingly given the confluence of events and personalities, reflects the time in which he lived: The era of the Great Depression and the descent into alcoholism and depression that afflicted so many within his universe. When approaching the task of preparing a research project based upon “Babylon Revisited,” therefore, it is probably a good idea to verse oneself in both the lives of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and in the 1920s and 1930s, the former a period of affluence and conspicuous consumption, the latter the result of values sublimated to material pursuits. Indeed, the use of the title “Babylon Revisited” is itself a metaphor for the Biblical destruction of a city that has come to represent moral decline. [See the New Testament Book of Revelation] An appropriate research topic, then, is how Fitzgerald’s story reflects both his life and the personal destruction wrought by the excesses of the 1920s and the onset of the Great Depression that ended that decade.
The choice of literature has been made: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1931 short story “Babylon Revisited.” The student posing these questions chose this story, so it is incumbent upon that student to provide an explanation for this choice. Was it suggested by a teacher or professor, or was it consistent with the student’s interest in the writings of Fitzgerald? “Babylon Revisited,” as noted above, was a highly personal work of literature by a gifted author who personified the times in which he lived. His most famous work, The Great Gatsby, is the story of old and new money, and the emotional and intellectual vacuity at the core of the world depicted: wealthy sections of Long Island characterized by the sources of wealth of those portrayed. Most of these people would lose everything with the stock market crash of 1929. Fitzgerald’s stories provide vivid portraits of the emotional emptiness that pervaded that world, and the costs of extravagance. With “Babylon Revisited,” he presents in concise form the themes of excess, loss, and the struggle for redemption. The story’s protagonist, Charlie Wales, represents Fitzgerald. That this story takes place in Paris is no accident; Paris was the center of much of the intellectual, social and cultural fermentation that provided so many great works of literature. As Charlie discovers upon his return to Paris, the City of Lights has come to embody the social transformations that accompanied the Depression. “Babylon Revisited” is replete with references to these transformations, as in the following passage from early in the story, in which Charlie checks out the hotel bar that was once a favorite haunt of his and his peers, but now sits devoid of human interaction:
“When he turned into the bar he travelled the twenty feet of green carpet with his eyes fixed straight ahead by old habit; and then, with his foot firmly on the rail, he turned and surveyed the room, encountering only a single pair of eyes that fluttered up from a newspaper in the corner. Charlie asked for the head barman, Paul, who in the latter days of the bull market had come to work in his own custom-built car--disembarking, however, with due nicety at the nearest corner.”
Discovering that Paul was absent, Charlie engages in conversation with another bartender, Alix, during which he inquires about the fate of a long-lost friend:
"By the way, what's become of Claude Fessenden?"
"Alix lowered his voice confidentially: ‘He's in Paris, but he doesn't come here any more. Paul doesn't allow it. He ran up a bill of thirty thousand francs, charging all his drinks and his lunches, and usually his dinner, for more than a year. And when Paul finally told him he had to pay, he gave him a bad check.’”
It is later, however, that Fitzgerald provides the story’s most important epiphany or revelation on the part of Charlie, whose wife, Helen, has died (a serious and interesting departure from real-life, in which Zelda Fitzgerald was alive but committed to a sanitarium). In yet another visit to the hotel bar where he engaged in many long days and nights of drunken revelry, Charlie again discusses the transformations that have occurred since the onset of the Great Depression, this time with Paul, who laments the passage of the days of affluence:
"It's a great change," he said sadly. "We do about half the business we did. So many fellows I hear about back in the States lost everything, maybe not in the first crash, but then in the second. Your friend George Hardt lost every cent, I hear. Are you back in the States?"
"No, I'm in business in Prague."
"I heard that you lost a lot in the crash."
"I did," and he added grimly, "but I lost everything I wanted in the boom.”
This exchange is representative of Fitzgerald at his most poignant and reflective regarding the moral deficiencies of the previous era. Charlie has survived financially – as Fitzgerald would do – but has lost that which was most dear to him – his family. In the story, Charlie comes to Paris to visit his nine-year-old daughter, Honoria, who represents the Fitzgeralds’ real-life daughter Scottie. Helen is dead; Zelda was institutionalized for depression. The parallels are far from subtle. The themes of excess, loss and the struggle for redemption are clear, as is the continuing social relevance of this story.