‘Babylon Revisited’ is an autobiographical ephemeral short story penned by famous American author F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1930. However, the story was published in 1931 when Fitzgerald was struggling with his alcoholism and the strained relationship with his wife Zelda and his daughter. Using familiar nostalgia as one of the themes, Fitzgerald gives his take on how he visited Paris or how Charlie J. Wales with his wife Helen visited Paris and irresponsibly threw away money on lavish parties, drinks, romance, and affluent living. This was because luck favored them, and they got a lot of money. Charlie states that he got the excess cash during the turbulent financial period of the late 1920s. Like his namesake Charlie, Fitzgerald earned a lot of money when his twentieth-century classic novel The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, was well received. He then married his fiancé Zelda, and they started to waste the money on high living just as Charlie Wales and Helen did in this story titled ‘Babylon Revisited’. We realize the struggles with alcoholism and mental illness that Fitzgerald had to go through during this time. Like most other Fitzgerald stories, we know that Fitzgerald penned this story to pay the bills. In The Great Gatsby, the classic line ‘The Party Starts’ indicates the lavish party life full of alcohol, music, drugs, and women that Fitzgerald and Zelda were investing precious money in. In this story, however, Lincoln, Charlie’s logical and peace-loving brother-in-law, states at a restaurant meeting with Charlie that ‘the big party is over now’. This indicates the change in circumstances in Charlie’s and Fitzgerald’s life. It also indicates that Charlie should stop mulling over the past and live up to the expectations of a being a father to his daughter. This parallel, along with many others to Fitzgerald’s life one sees in ‘Babylon Revisited’ which indicates the return of Charlie to the 1920s new version of a rich and indulgent world that is the ‘new Babylon’, a world of gambling, drinks, money, women and all the partying one wanted.
Charlie is an advocate who loses a lot of money, as he potently says in the boom of the last crash in America around 1928. He lost money because of his lavish lifestyle and because he threw away money recklessly during the ‘boom’. Charlie, at this point, is a widower. His wife Helen has passed away due to heart trouble, and his only daughter from their marriage is living with his sister-in-law Marion and brother-in-law Lincoln. Both Marion and Lincoln represent one of the contrasting couples in this story compared to Charlie and Helen and Duncan and Lorraine. Lincoln and Marion have always had to work hard to make two ends meet. They have been working hard all their lives, with Lincoln only having a simple bank job.
On the other hand, Marion’s sister Helen and her husband Charlie threw away money uselessly when with all due respect, they should have saved the money for a rainy day or helped Marion and Lincoln, who were decent people. After Helen’s death, Charlie was broke and had to work hard as a lawyer in Prague. Note that at the beginning of ‘Babylon Revisited’, Charlie mentions that he was not making as much money as he used to because no one knew him in Prague. However, when conversing with Lincoln to coax them to give him the charge of Honoria, his daughter, he states in no uncertain terms that probably he was making the same amount of money in Prague as he did three years before when partying with Helen; that would be twice of Lincoln’s money. However, Lincoln and Marion were used to Charlie’s ways, and although they feel he has sobered up, stopped his partying, and was almost off alcohol, they are wary of giving him Honoria’s charge. Do also remember the absolute distrust Marion has regarding Charlie because of the terrible way he treated his wife Helen on one February night by locking her out of their home in Paris during a snowstorm. Also note that though through most of this story Lincoln seems as an arbitrator yet he too has been hurt by the callousness of Charlie towards money as he tends to speak roughly to Charlie sometimes, especially during the restaurant scene where he states ‘the big party’s over now’ as well as when Lorraine and Duncan spoil their evening together.
We see in this story Fitzgerald going past all the famous landmarks of Paris in the 1930s, giving us something of a bird’s-eye view of the famous ‘Babylon’ or gambling and drinking dens of that city, especially useful to Indian readers who are not used to such extravagance even in the twenty-first century. But Fitzgerald does this on purpose to indicate that though Charlie, like Fitzgerald, had given up his butterfly days, he was missing those days of free living. However, he also notes that when he sees these old places from the past, it tends to spoil his mood and hurt him because he could never get all that lavishness again. It is indeed very terrible to remember something pleasant to the senses which you can never get again. That is the impression that Fitzgerald, through the character Charlie, wants to impress on all his readers by taking us through a toned-down tour of Paris. Charlie, during his many visits to his old haunts, realizes the following things which I will mention in brief:
- The rich have lost a lot of money, so very few people patronize these bars and bistros. One hotel was so desperate that the moment they saw Charlie’s head peeking into the place, they started their orchestra and tried to lure him in. One then notices the decadence of the place, which ultimately led to even Fitzgerald’s ruin.
- Charlie seems to have been known in these parts as a great American tycoon or millionaire, which he was certainly not. The people of Paris felt that way because of the money he kept throwing away. Charlie in 1930 may have regretted being thought of as one, but the reader notices that in 1928, he was glad to be considered an American millionaire, as mentioned in the text.
- Charlie realizes that he has spent so much money with no returns in the long run. His previous life was a bad investment for his future. It seems Charlie never invested in his future and just enjoyed delighting in hedonism and the pleasure of his senses.
- When the two waiters, Paul and Alix, try to coax Charlie to drink, he resolutely mentions that he will have only one glass because he was off drinks. They are shocked to see this change in their customer but are aware that he is weak enough to start again if he does not watch himself.
- The meeting with drunk friends Lorraine and Duncan, who are confirmed alcoholics and party lovers, again reminds Charlie of his extravagant past, and he is almost tempted to give into them, but his love for his daughter and his determination never to get drunk again stops him from giving in to their invitations. The introduction of Lorraine and Duncan, who are married to totally different people and are frivolous, and carefree, and yet have a tendency to insult, hints that the relationships Charlie kept in the past were not genuine. They may have been entertaining, but their drinking had made them unreasonable and unmanageable like most alcoholics are. Notice Charlie’s new style of dealing with such old friends: asking for their phone numbers or addresses and saying that he will call them on another day. He does so to rid himself of such friends who will hinder him in getting to know his daughter Honoria.
Coming to Charlie’s daughter, she is nine years old and an adorable and pretty looking child. We know this by the admirers she has in restaurants among the guests at the table and the fact that even the drunk Lorraine could not desist from praising the beauty of Charlie’s daughter. Honoria is fond of her father, but she is aware of his past. Honoria seems aware that he is not wealthy anymore, which Marion probably told her, when Marion was sometimes taunting her or scolding her. That is why Honoria, with all the prudence, that a self-possessed nine-year-old child can possess, tells her father that she rather not have him spend money unnecessarily by buying her an expensive doll or toy at the toy store. Honoria trusts her father but is independent to a certain extent and can look after herself. This is the main crux that propels this story forward. Charlie does not want Honoria to grow up as an adult without knowing him properly, and so wants to make her live with him as soon as possible. However, with Lorraine and Duncan in their drunken fit entering Lincoln and Marion’s home, Charlie loses all his opportunity to take Honoria with him to Prague. In a way, Fitzgerald is trying to say that Charlie’s past will always creep back or cast a shadow on his present life.
Marion is determined to have nothing to do with Charlie. She has a particular loathing for him after he ill-treated her sister. Marion, as a character, tends to be strict, firm, rigid, and orthodox. As I have mentioned before, she and Lincoln constantly play the role of the contrasting couple here in this story. Notice towards the end of the story how they make such a big fuss about giving their children a spoon full of medicine along with other things before they go to bed. Theirs is the life of organization and rules, which is the central part of their middle-class living. Charlie looks at them doing this as he would dinosaurs in the museum. He looks at them from an outsider’s point of view when they were better off than him. According to Marion, Charlie may have given up drinks, but he was still very different from them. There is a hint that Fitzgerald loves everything American and so takes to the American middle-class home of Lincoln and Marion. He states that the clutter of utensils in the kitchen was a ‘French’ activity, whereas the activity in the other rooms was American. There is a hint of racism and the mention of the word ‘Negros’ instead of Black Europeans.
Where the details mentioned in this story about the death of Helen is concerned, we vaguely know the following:
- Thanks to the February night Charlie locked her out of her home during a snowstorm, she was a victim of pneumonia.
- She then suffers from some mental issues. Charlie was not even there with her during her demise because he was recuperating in a sanitorium, either to detoxify himself, solve his alcoholic problem, or tend to his own mental issues.
- When Charlie was in the sanitorium, Marion was with Helen and told her dying sister to care for her only daughter Honoria. Marion took Honoria into her home when she was given the child’s guardianship while Charlie was recuperating in the sanitorium.
- Marion held it against Charlie that he did not even think twice of letting not only his wife but even his daughter get into the hands of an outsider.
- It is mentioned somewhat vaguely that Helen died of heart trouble, which to Marion meant that Helen died of matters related to her emotions and feelings.
In this short story titled ‘Babylon Revisited’, Charlie earns his bread religiously and has only one drink in the afternoon. He was almost off drinks and wanted to take Honoria to Prague with him. He wants Honoria to have, as mentioned in the text, what he and Helen both lacked, character. Charlie feels that even during the ups or downs in Honoria’s future life, nothing would affect her good nature and good habits if she had character. He realizes that although Honoria loves him, she knows the reality of her mother’s death because she refers to herself as the mother of her doll and that her so-called ‘husband’ is dead. Charlie wants Honoria always to remember her mother because they both loved their daughter Honoria and wanted the best for her despite all their differences.
On the other hand, Lorraine is a seductress who had been sexually involved with Charlie three or four years ago when he had a lot of money. She mentions this openly in front of Lincoln, Marion, their two children, Richard and Elsie, and Honoria. This revelation was not something that surprised Charlie, but Lincoln and especially Marion were disgusted by it. After hearing Lorraine, Marion refuses to allow Charlie to take her precious sister’s daughter away from her. The bold sexual intent is evident in Lorraine’s words, and we also notice that Lorraine was so perverse that she was attracted to Marion’s pre-teen son Richard. Thus, like a cobra, Charlie’s ugly past raises its head again through the callous behavior and visit of Lorraine and Duncan. Their conduct at Marion’s home was disgusting to behold. Note the way they tease Charlie for not having a proper address and how they tried following him wherever he went. The reason given by Fitzgerald for this was that Lorraine and Duncan were so drunk that they could not believe that Charlie was sober and so wanted to gaze at his resoluteness because he was stronger than they were. They were not trying to associate with him to change their ways but to stare at his new behavior and mock it, because indeed, they were inwardly jealous of him. They were not true friends of Charlie but just wanted to make use of his money and have his company at gambling and drinks.
Due to this meeting, Charlie loses the chance of watching Honoria grow up. He returns to the Ritz and meets Paul, the waiter, to bring home to the reader that many Americans had lost their money and wealth in the big financial crash of the 1920s and during the Great Depression of 1929. Charlie mentions that he, too, lost a lot of money and muses over the fact that one day he would come back to get Honoria. Like Fitzgerald, there is a hint that Charlie would like to haunt all the places in Paris where he had had so much fun in the past but now had to repent at leisure. This story is a highly symbolic form and an excellent example of the stories and novels written during the latter part of Fitzgerald’s life when he had lost a lot of money. He wants to haunt these places of his past forever.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story titled ‘Babylon Revisited’. I hope to read, review, and analyze more of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writings soon. If you are interested in reading a book of award-winning LGBTQIA short stories, you can check out my book titled The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. If you are interested in reading a classic work of another American writer, then you can check out my abridgment of Washington Irving’s story titled The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I hope to review more American short stories in the coming weeks.
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