Themes and Meanings

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In this story that recalls F. Scott Fitzgerald’s own alcoholic existence in Paris in the 1920’s, Charlie Wales learns how truly relative wealth is. In losing, for at least a while longer, the future that he hopes to share with Honoria, he is paying for his past.

Charlie recalls his earlier dissipated life and suddenly realizes the meaning of the word “dissipation”: to make nothing out of something. As Charlie sits alone in a bar at the end of the story, he seems left with nothing. He is not without wealth. He now makes through hard work as much money as he made through luck during the boom days of the stock market. The way of life that came with sudden fortune, however, destroyed his chance to enjoy things of more lasting value. He remembers the money frivolously thrown away on wild evenings of entertainment and knows that it was not given for nothing: “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.” Just when he hopes to get Honoria back and establish a future with her, his past intrudes, and he is unfairly kept from doing so. The ill-timed appearance of Duncan and Lorraine convinces him of the impossibility of ever outliving his past.

Charlie is alone and frustrated at the end, but he is not defeated. He has learned to “trust in character again as the eternally valuable element” and he has faith in his own reformed character. He knows that he has much to offer Honoria: a home, love, and values. He is disillusioned, but in his new strength, he will not slip back into the destructive habits of his past. For the time being all that he can offer Honoria are things, and he knows how little value there is in the things that money can buy.


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Change and Transformation
In "Babylon Revisited,'' a father tries to regain custody of his daughter after the death of his wife, financial disaster in the stock market crash of 1929, and his own battle with alcoholism. A central theme of the story is Charlie's struggle to convince himself and others that he has abandoned the "dissipated'' ways of his pre-crash life in Paris. Through telling details, Fitzgerald shows the reader that Charlie has largely reformed, while hinting that his problems may not be entirely behind him.

Throughout the story Charlie is presented with temptations to return to the "utter irresponsibility'' of his previous life, which he must overcome to prove he truly understands that personal character is the "eternally valuable element." In the story's opening scene, Charlie appears to demonstrate his new self-discipline by refusing the bartender's offer of a drink. But he then undercuts the reader's confidence by giving him the Peters's address to pass on to Duncan Schaeffer, a one-time drinking partner. Moreover, the fact that Charlie has found himself in a bar as soon as he reaches Paris, and proceeds to ask the bartender the whereabouts of his old friends, introduces a doubt about Charlie's actual rehabilitation. Similarly, after Charlie's first visit to the warm domesticity of the Peters's home, he avoids returning to his hotel in favor of taking in Paris's decadent nightlife. At the restaurant with Honoria the next day, Charlie successfully avoids the social invitations of old friends from his drinking days, but tells them that he and Honoria are headed to the Empire...

(This entire section contains 1642 words.)

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theater, where Duncan and Lorraine reappear and convince him to have a drink.

Charlie consciously manipulates his conversations with his in-laws to achieve his goal of winning back his daughter. Rather than simply present himself as the reformed man he claims he is, Charlie sees his meetings with his in-laws as contests or performances in which his behavior must be manipulated to win "points." By showing Charlie in the bars and nightclubs he has claimed are no longer a part of his life, drinking with people he claims are part of his past, and viewing his conversations with the Peters's as contests, Fitzgerald introduces an element of doubt that enables the reader to share Marion Peters's suspicion that Charlie's transformation is, at best, incomplete.

Guilt and Innocence
Throughout "Babylon Revisited," Charlie Wales struggles with his sense of guilt over having caused his wife's death, losing custody of his daughter, and squandering the successes of his early years in alcohol and "dissipation." In order to win custody of Honoria, Charlie must convince his sister-in-law, who now has legal guardianship over Honoria, that he has accepted his guilt and turned over a new leaf. Though he admits to her that he has acted badly in the past, he now hopes that his sobriety is permanent, but admits that "it's within human possibilities I might go wrong any time." Marion refuses to interpret his remarks as mature, honest expressions of self-knowledge, and uses them instead to confirm her deepest suspicions about Charlie.

Throughout the story, Charlie's ability to punish himself and make himself feel guilty is every bit as strong as Marion's. "I spoiled this city for myself," he laments while driving through Paris, "I didn't realize it, but the days came along one after another, and then two years were gone, and everything was gone, and I was gone." Recalling the clubs where he gave away thousand-franc notes as tips, he guiltily makes another donation, this time to a poor woman who accosts him in a brasserie. When Marion Peters confronts him directly with the question of his responsibility for Helen's death ("It's something you'll have to square with your own conscience"), her words touch the raw nerve of Charlie's guilt and "an electric current of agony" surges through him. For the remainder of the story, Charlie's sense of responsibility for Helen's death hounds him. Both in his hour of triumph, when Marion agrees to give him custody of Honoria, and later when Lorraine and Duncan's drunken appearance changes her mind, Charlie is haunted by Helen's image, which reminds him that he is one of the heartless "men who locked their wives out in the snow."

Although both Marion and Charlie himself seem to take Charlie's guilt for granted, Fitzgerald leaves the question of Charlie's true guilt open. How guilty was he? After a night of drinking and quarreling, Charlie and Helen create a scene at a Paris nightclub. Charlie tries to take Helen home, but she kisses another man in front of him and his friends, then makes a personal remark that embarrasses Charlie publicly. Angry and perhaps believing that Helen will spend the night with "young Webb," he returns home, locks the apartment door behind him, and goes to bed. Helen returns an hour later in a driving snowstorm, however, and, unable to get in or call a cab, she trudges through the snow in her slippers to her sister's apartment. Though she appears at Marion's "soaked to the skin and shivering," she escapes pneumonia only to die later of "heart trouble.'' When Charlie later reminds Marion that Helen died not from pneumonia caused by the snowstorm, but from heart trouble, she repeats the phrase heart trouble "as if [it] had another meaning for her." This "other meaning" suggests that Marion believes Helen died of a ‘‘broken heart.'' Yet Helen's willingness to kiss another man and embarrass her husband publicly suggests that on that "terrible night'' it may have been Charlie rather than Helen who suffered the worst emotional damage.

Wealth and Poverty
The ambiguity that surrounds Charlie's sense of guilt in "Babylon Revisited'' is compounded by Fitzgerald's introduction of the theme of money, wealth, and envy. Not only is Charlie riddled with guilt for his wife's death, his alcoholism, and the loss of custody of his daughter, he has also come to feel guilt for his financial success during the boom years before the stock market crash. In "Babylon Revisited'' money is seen, in the words of one critic, as a "corrosive power," and though virtually everyone in the story is preoccupied with it, only Charlie has learned that when it comes to matters of the heart, money has no value.

The story opens with Charlie sitting in the bar of the Ritz Hotel, the symbol of opulence in the French capital. Although everyone he asks about is either ill or bankrupt—even his old friend Lorraine tells him, "We're poor as hell"—Charlie has recovered from his financial losses and is doing better in Prague than he was before the crash: "My income last year was bigger than it was when I had money." Although he fondly recalls the pre-crash years when rich Americans abroad "were a sort of royalty, almost infallible,’’ he now feels more guilt than nostalgia for the days of' "wildly squandered'' cash. Passing a Paris restaurant, he reflects that "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." Later, when a woman accosts him in a brasserie, Charlie guiltily buys her a meal and slips her a twenty-franc note. The next day when Honoria asks him, "we're not rich anymore, are we?" he disingenuously replies, "We never were," but then offers to buy her "anything you want."

The heart of Charlie's guilt over money emerges when he tells the Peterses that his problems did not begin "until I gave up business and came over here with nothing to do.... I worked hard for ten years, you know—until I got lucky in the market, like so many people. Terribly lucky. It didn't seem any use working any more, so I quit. It won't happen again." The easy money Charlie won in the boom years of the 1920s was unearned, he now believes, because he acquired it through the stock market rather than through honest work. In his mind, his guilt over Helen's death is linked to his guilt for quitting his job and living off his stock market windfall. Although he has learned his lesson and rebuilt his wealth through hard work in Prague, the Peters do not share Charlie's sense of moral rebirth through good, old-fashioned labor. After telling them that his newfound success in Prague will allow him to give Honoria ‘‘certain advantages,’’ including a French governess and a new apartment, Marion lashes out: ‘‘I suppose you can give her more luxuries than we can. When you were throwing away money we were living along watching every ten francs.’’ In Marion's mind, Charlie's responsibility for Helen's death is inseparable from his financial success: he should feel guilt for both.

Even Lincoln Peters—who explicitly absolves Charlie of guilt for Helen's death—seems to resent Charlie's knack for prosperity: "While you and Helen were tearing around Europe throwing money away, we were just getting along.... there was some kind of injustice in it—you not even working toward the end, and getting richer and richer." And as Charlie himself admits, Lincoln "couldn't be expected to accept with equanimity the fact that his income was again twice as large as their own." When Marion changes her mind about letting Charlie take Honoria back to Prague, Charlie is left alone at the Ritz with only his money, and he reflexively resolves to "send Honoria some things; he would send her a lot of things." But Charlie's emotional losses have taught him that "this was just money" and "nothing was much good" except getting Honoria back. For the Peterses, however, whose circumstances prevented them from enjoying the prosperity of the pre-crash boom years, the guilt Charlie should feel for his alcoholic life and Helen's death are inseparable from the guilt he should feel for his money.