"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 Inescapability of the Past
Even though Charlie’s wilder days have long since passed, he’ll never be able to truly escape them. Although he actively tries to avoid reminders of the Paris he used to know, they nevertheless follow him everywhere. When he goes to lunch with Honoria, for example, he can find only one restaurant that doesn’t remind him of drunken meals that lasted for hours. When he walks through Montmartre, old haunts surround him. Even the things that have changed remind him of his past, simply because the newness of them strikes him as odd. The scared tourists heading into cafés are pale imitations of the partiers he and his friends once were, and the once-bustling places that these tourists frequent are now nearly empty. Charlie would like to put his failed marriage behind him, but he cannot. Marion constantly reminds him of his mistakes, which she clings to almost obsessively. The past informs the present: because of what Charlie did to Helen, he is prevented from living with Honoria. Perhaps the most ominous figures from the past are Duncan and Lorraine, living reminders of the bad old days, who still try to follow him wherever he goes.
If Charlie wants to shake off the past, however, some part of him simultaneously can’t let it go. He asks his cabbie to drive to the Avenue de l’Opera, he goes to Montmartre and visits the places he used to frequent, and he begins and ends the story in the familiar Ritz bar. While these incidents suggest that the past still haunts Charlie, we can’t help thinking that Charlie is actually looking to be haunted. He must know, consciously or subconsciously, that visiting the scenes of his former life will fill him with regret and possibly even longing. Perhaps most damning of all is the fact that Charlie gives Lincoln and Marion’s address to Alix, asking him to pass it along to Duncan. He later ignores Lorraine and refuses to give his hotel address to them, but his protestations mean nothing because he’s already told them where they can find him. We know that some part of him must want the debauchery of the old days back in his life, thereby planting the seeds of his own failure.
The Purity of Paternal Love
Fitzgerald characterizes the love that fathers and daughters feel for each other as the only pure, unadulterated kind of love in the world. Other types of love, however passionate or intense they may be, are always complicated by dislike or mistrust. Charlie and Helen loved each other, for example, but they tormented and abused each other: Helen kissed other men, they fought, and Charlie locked her out in a snowstorm. Lincoln and Marion demonstrate another type of marital love, one that’s genuine but strained by financial and familial difficulties. To some degree, Charlie loves Lincoln and Marion, whom he still considers family. At the same time, however, he thinks of them as adversaries, and their mutual distrust of each other makes their love less than pure. Only Honoria and Charlie love each other in an unadulterated way. They often speak of their love for each other, and she asks him whether he loves her more than anyone in the world. Marital and familial love may fall apart with regularity, but the love between children and parents is the most pure.
More main ideas from Babylon Revisited