How does Fitzgerald reflect modernist ideas in "Babylon Revisited"?

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Modernism was a highly complex movement, interpreted in a number of different ways over many decades even by its leading practitioners and critics. It is also expressed in a range of different styles, from the Joycean stream of consciousness to the laconic sentences of Hemingway. Scott Fitzgerald's controlled lyricism puts him closer to the Hemingway end of the spectrum, but there are brief instances of the Joycean technique as Charlie considers his surroundings, his thoughts mingling with the narrative:

He had never eaten at a really cheap restaurant in Paris. Five-course dinner, four francs fifty, eighteen cents, wine included.

Even more central to the project of Modernism, as defined by both Ezra Pound and the Russian formalist critics such as Viktor Shklovsky, is the technique of “defamiliarization”: describing familiar objects in strange ways in order to give the reader a fresh perspective on the world:

The three children moved intimately about, playing through the yellow oblongs that led to other rooms; the cheer of six o'clock spoke in the eager smacks of the fire and the sounds of French activity in the kitchen.

Here, the doorways are seen as the “yellow oblongs” of a Modernist painting, and the sounds of the fire are heard as “smacks.” These descriptions serve not only to defamiliarize the reader but also to alienate Charlie from the sights and sounds of his surroundings, as do his streams of consciousness about what he has missed. Charlie is an alien figure in what he had expected to be a familiar landscape, but he can neither recapture nor escape the past. His failure to progress or form meaningful connections is an expression of the alienation from the environment and from others that is another aspect of literary Modernism.

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"Babylon Revisited" has many of the hallmarks of modernism. The protagonist, Charlie Wales, suffers from alienation from the world around him. Returning to Paris after the stock market crash and the death of his wife, he thinks, "I've spoiled this city for myself." Paris no longer seems alive to him but filled with a sense of despair and gloom, and his only goal is to not to relish life in Paris but to leave the city with his daughter, Honoria, in tow. 

Another feature of modernism expressed in the story is Charlie's obsession with the past. In previous days, he was drunk and led a debauched existence, but he can no longer live this type of life. He keeps trying to escape Duncan Schaeffer and Lorraine Quarrles, figures from his past, as he wants to start anew and be able to make a life with his daughter. However, the past continues to plague him, as Duncan and Lorraine ruin his chances to start a new life, and Charlie continues to be haunted by his wife's death.

Finally, the story expresses the limitations of love. While Charlie loved his wife, he often treated her badly, and she is now dead. In addition, he can't reconnect fully with his daughter, whom he loves, and he finds paths to emotional fulfillment cut off from him.

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After World War II, writers attempted to come to terms with where humanity was going after the belief in many of the things that were held as fundamental had been shattered.  Disillusioned, many modernists placed their focus upon individualism, employing a new technique called "stream of consciousness" narration with the theme of the randomness of life.  Moreover, the Modernist movement was concerned with the quickening of society towards its destruction and lack of meaning.  Certainly, several of the elements of Modernism are present in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Babylon Revisited."

Randomness of life

As expatriates in Paris, Charlie Wales lives a rather hedonistic and impetuous life.  However, with the crash of 1929, things change drastically for him.  Years later, Charlie does recover financially, but his personal life is an absolute wreck because of his alcoholism  The fateful night on which his wife walks in the cold rain is certainly a random act, but one with tragic results.

Society's movement towards its own destruction meaninglessness

Charlie Wales rationalizes his drinking problem and dismisses important issues--"The depression of yesterday was gone." 

The former friends of Charlie, Duncan Scaeffer and Lorraine Quarrles seek to "draw a certain sustenance from his strength," but they really destroy Charlie's chances of regaining custody of his daughter Honoria.  Hedonistic, they are only concerned with Charlie's joining them for drinks and partying.

Constantly Marion, his sister-in-law is the voice of practicality.  As a foil to Charlie's irresponsibility she often asks such questions as "Why didn't you think of all this before?"

Stream-of-consciousness narration and allusiveness,

In several passages in the story, Charlie's thoughts are intermixed with the third-person narration, providing the Modernist stream-of-consciousness, interior monologue.  Here are examples: 

 He had never eaten at a really cheap restaurant in Paris. Five-course dinner, four francs fifty, eighteen cents, wine included. For some odd reason he wished that he had

He believed in character; he wanted to jump back a whole generation and trust in character again as the eternally valuable element. Everything else wore out

He would come back some day; they couldn't make him pay forever. But he wanted his child, and nothing was much good now, beside that fact.... He was absolutely sure Helen wouldn't have wanted him to be so alone.


In his effort to escape the past, Charlie tries to avoid Duncan and Lorraine.  But he fails, just as he fails to convince Marion that he has changed because he lets his friends and his alcoholism control him.  Finally, at the end, Charlie engages again in interior monologue in which he vows to "come back someday" because

...he wanted his child, and nothing was much good now, beside that fact.

Perhaps futilely, Charlie ultimately understands that he must create his own destiny.  And, so, he promises not to revisit Babylon the next time.

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