Babylon Revisited By F Scott Fitzgerald Free Essays
"Babylon Revisited" F. Scott Fitzgerald
The following entry presents criticism of Fitzgerald's short story "Babylon Revisited." See also, F. Scott Fitzgerald Criticism.
"Babylon Revisited" is Fitzgerald's most anthologized short story and is considered by many to be his best. First published in 1931 in the Saturday Evening Post, it reappeared with revisions in the 1935 collection Taps at Reveille. Fitzgerald wrote "Babylon Revisited" during a time of emotional and economic crisis. Like most of his work, the story reflects his own personal experience and his relationship with his wife Zelda; its tone is thoughtful and retrospective, and it is sadder than earlier stories he had written for the Post.
Plot and Major Characters
"Babylon Revisited" is set against the backdrop of expatriate Europe during the 1930s and recounts the story of Charlie Wales, a onetime wealthy playboy of 1920s Paris whose excesses contributed to the death of his wife, Helen, and led to his stay in a sanitarium for alcoholism. During Charlie's recovery, his daughter Honoria was placed under the custodianship of his sister-in-law and her husband—Marion and Lincoln Peters. Since then, Charlie has reestablished himself as a successful businessman in Prague. As the story opens, he has returned to Paris to reclaim his daughter but must first prove to Marion that he has reformed. The Peterses have never been as wealthy as Charlie and Helen were, and Marion is envious and resentful of Charlie's past extravagances. This, coupled with her bitterness at Charlie's part in her sister's death, makes Marion suspicious of Charlie's reformation, and she agrees only reluctantly to return Honoria to him. Her suspicions are apparently confirmed when Lorraine and Duncan, two unrepentant friends from Charlie's past, drunkenly descend upon Charlie while he is at the Peterses' house. Marion is shocked, and changes her mind about relinquishing Honoria. The story ends as Charlie resolves to try later to regain his daughter, believing that "they couldn't make him pay forever," and that "Helen wouldn't have wanted him to be so alone."
Major ThemesCritics have identified several major themes in "Babylon Revisited," some of which are centered upon time and its shaping of individual destiny. Joan Turner, for example, has asserted that one of the story's themes is that "the past cannot be escaped." Similarly, Carlos Baker has remarked that no matter how sincere Charlie is in his attempt at reformation, he is "defeated by a past that he can never shed." Ronald J. Gervais viewed the story as a lament for the past and its pleasures, as well as regret for mistakes made. Numerous critics have focused on guilt in the story: James M. Harrison and Seymour L. Gross, for example, have debated whether Charlie genuinely wants to change his ways or is still attracted to his former life. Finally, while Rose Adrienne Gallo considered guilt and retribution as significant concerns in the story, she also described the pernicious influence of money as an important theme—both in its ability to waste lives, as it has with Charlie, and to foster envy and resentment, as it has in Marion Peters.
"Babylon Revisited" has been generally well-received since its publication and is now considered a masterpiece. Nevertheless, critics have pointed out inconsistencies in the plot—for example, the apparently illogical route that Charlie takes from the Ritz Bar to the Peterses, and several inaccurate references to the passage of time. For all its inconsistencies, however, most critics agree that this wistful story displays Fitzgerald's writing at its best, with its close attention to imagery and sensitive choice of words.
The story opens with Charlie Wales questioning the barman at the Ritz as to the fortunes and whereabouts of his former drinking buddies. He gives the barman his brother-in-law’s address to pass on to Mr. Schaeffer. Things have clearly changed in Paris since his last visit. He finds the emptiness of the Ritz bar portentous, and is saddened that it is no longer the center for the Americans of Paris. Alix tells him of the decline in fortune of his former friends. Wales explains he is in business in Prague and that he has returned to see his little girl.
Wales tells the barman that he is now taking it easy There is a feeling of regret as he walks along the Left Bank, deciding that he spoiled the city for himself by behaving badly there.
He arrives at his in-law’s house in the Rue Palatine and is greeted excitedly by his nine-year-old daughter, Honoria. Wales then encounters his sister-in-law, whose response to him is lukewarm as she attempts to hide her distrust.
He boasts of his success in Prague to his brother-in-law, Lincoln. This is in a bid to demonstrate his stability, but his boasts are poorly received. They discuss the declining numbers of Americans in Paris, and the Peters’ acknowledge it has made life better for them. Wales reminisces over his experiences of Paris – “We were a sort of royalty, almost infallible.” Marion picks up on the fact that he has been in a bar and is not impressed. This fact seems to confirm her negative opinion of him.
He has dinner with the Peters’ and his daughter, then walks around Paris, looking at his old haunts. He remembers the excesses of his time there, and the consequences: the loss of custody of his child and the death of his wife.
He dines with Honoria following day at Le Grand Vatel, a place he does not associate with his wilder days. He offers to buy her toys, but she is unenthusiastic about presents. They are spotted by Duncan Schaeffer and Lorraine Quarrles, who are obviously continuing the vigorous party lifestyle that Wales has abandoned. He turns down dinner with them, but lets them know that he and Honoria are going to the vaudeville later. They turn up and have drinks at the interval at a table with Wales and his daughter.
Honoria says that she wants to live with her father, and Wales is overjoyed. Honoria goes to bed, and Wales resumes his conversation with Marion and Lincoln. He tells them that he now only takes one drink a day, and that he has reformed from his wild days of three years ago. He knows his request to take Honoria will not be a popular one. Marion is direct in her interrogation of him, asking for how long he will be sober. She says her duty is to Helen, Honoria’s mother. Wales pleads his case, saying that he does not want to miss Honoria’s childhood, and that he will be taking a French governess to care for her in Prague. His financial situation is clearly more stable that the Peters’ and both of them are irritated that Wales should be so prosperous.
Finally, Marion explodes. She clearly blames Wales for her sister’s death. Wales leaves the house and reflects on Helen’s death. They had argued for hours. She had kissed a young man when Wales had tried to take her home, and she had said something angry. He left her there, went home and locked the door. She had arrived home alone an hour later, to find herself locked out in the snow. She had died later, after their quarrel had been resolved, but Marion still believed him to be responsible.
He hears Helen talking to him in his sleep, telling him that she wants Honoria to be with him. He wakes up happy, and the Peters have agreed he can take Honoria, though they will retain legal guardianship. He finds a letter at his hotel, redirected from the Ritz, from Lorraine Quarrles, who wishes to see him again. She recounts an incident where they stole a butcher’s tricycle and they rode it together. He is surprised at his own former irresponsibility.
Wales takes gifts to the Peters’ house and they agree that he and Honoria can leave in a few days. Then the doorbell rings. It is Duncan and Lorraine, utterly drunk, inviting Wales to dinner. Wales is shocked, and Marion runs from the room. Their dinner is off as Marion is so disturbed by the intrusion. He is told to call Lincoln the next day.
He goes to the Ritz bar for a drink and calls Lincoln. The agreement over Honoria leaving is postponed due to Marion’s distress. He is frustrated, knowing that his opportunity has been lost. He decides that he will return and try again. "He would come back some day; they couldn’t make him pay forever."
“Babylon Revisited “ is Fitzgerald’s most anthologized story. Again it is deeply personal: Fitzgerald’s daughter Scottie was brought up by friends as Zelda Fitzgerald was committed due to her failing mental health and Fitzgerald’s alcoholism increased.
Charlie Wales has returned to Paris and immediately we see him in the Ritz bar. This choice of venue makes us skeptical that Wales is totally renouncing his former ways. He asks about old acquaintances and – most notably – hands over his brother-in-law’s address to the barman to pass to Mr. Schaeffer. His surprise at the end of the story when Schaeffer turns up there, having seen him in Paris and joined him at the theater, is therefore not so believable.
Wales finds the quiet of the bar portentous.” Indeed it is: the quiet of this opening belies the uncomfortable drama of the scene at the Peters,’ and Wales’s return to the bar later is more depressing than even this initial visit. He tells the barman that he has returned to Paris to see his daughter. The barman clearly knows Wales, but did not know that he had a daughter. This symbolizes the fact that Wales's primary motivations when formerly in Paris did not center on family life.
Fitzgerald refers to particular iconic places in Paris to add a tone of realism and familiarity to the story. He has regrets that he has never eaten in a cheap restaurant – implying that he knows he did not experience all the diversity that Paris has to offer.
Wales is nervous when he reaches his in-law’s house, signified by the "cramping in his belly." There is a contrast in Honoria’s passionate embrace of her father, and Marion’s "tepid" response. Their apartment is warm and cheery: a nest of family life. Wales betrays his nerves as he boasts about his income and his business success. This is not a good way to win over the Peters’ – they have always struggled as Wales and his wife lived a decadent, frivolous life.
When Wales lapses into reminiscences about his earlier life in Paris, his words are poignant and tinged with regret. He says "we were a sort of royalty, almost infallible." "Almost" is the key word here, as Helen Wales does not survive the heady days of their indulgent lifestyle.
At Le Grand Vatel, Wales enjoys dining with Honoria. He does not understand her rejection of him offering her anything she wants. He forgets that she has grown up in a much more restrained household that he and his wife ever provided, and that all Honoria really wants is to spend time with her father, not his gifts. Unfortunately, the impression is that this is the only way Wales is used to communicating with his daughter, and he reverts back to this at the end of the story when they cannot be together.
Wales cannot ascertain whether the sisters were close, but he is told by Honoria that she likes Uncle Lincoln best. In Marion’s hands, Honoria seems to be a bargaining tool to intensify Wales’ guilt. Marion makes Wales feel guilty about everything; Helen’s death, his drinking and their lack of wealth. She had a "curious disbelief in her sister’s happiness:" not understanding that Helen loved Wales and their lifestyle probably as much as he did.
It is likely that Helen’s behavior on the night she is locked out was equally as reprehensible as her husband’s. It is easier for Marion to blame Wales than it is to accept her sister’s faults. Wales’ dream of Helen may be an attempt to ease his guilt, but its gentleness suggests that there was love between them.