By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Babylon Revisited’ is a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), originally published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1931. Dealing with some of the prominent themes of Fitzgerald’s most famous work, The Great Gatsby, ‘Babylon Revisited’ is about alienation, guilt, dissipation, and making amends, among other themes.
‘Babylon Revisited’: plot summary
The story centres on Charlie Wales, an American expatriate who has been living in Prague. He has travelled to Paris to try to regain custody of his daughter, Honoria; Charlie lost custody after his life spiralled out of control because of his reliance on drink. His wife’s sister, Marion Peters, has been looking after Honoria in his absence; Charlie’s wife, and Marion’s sister, died some time ago, possibly as a result of Charlie’s drunken lifestyle.
At the beginning of the story, Charlie is reacquainting himself with Paris and noting how much things have changed. Many of his old American drinking friends have left, and the Ritz hotel no longer feels like a little piece of America dropped in the middle of the French capital.
Charlie, who is thirty-five, greets his nine-year-old daughter, who is with Marion, her husband Lincoln, and their two children, who are the same age as Honoria.
There is a mutual antipathy between Marion and Charlie, who tells them that he takes one drink every afternoon, but only one, to remind him of his dissolute past. He leaves them and goes to some of his old haunts in the city, reflecting once again on how Paris has changed. Even the nightclubs disgust him.
The next day, he goes to a restaurant with his daughter and they catch up. She asks him why she has to live in Paris with Lincoln and Marion rather than with him, and he tells her she needs to learn French and can be taken better care of in Paris.
While they’re talking, Charlie is recognised by Duncan and Lorraine, two of his old friends from his earlier times in Paris, and they realise he is sober. They are keen to catch up with him but Charlie, sensing they wish to feed upon his sobriety and strength, does his best to shrug them off. When he takes Honoria back to Lincoln and Marion’s, she tells him she wants to come and live with him.
When he talks with Marion and Lincoln about reclaiming custody of his daughter, Marion confronts him about the year-and-a-half he spent drinking heavily. It turns out that he once locked Helen, his wife, out of the house and she went to Marion’s in the rain. Although Helen died of heart trouble, Marion views her sister’s death as Charlie’s fault. As she lay dying, she asked Marion to take care of Honoria.
Since his days of dissipation, Charlie has turned his life around and become a successful businessman who has the money needed to take care of Honoria. He wants to set up a home with Honoria and his sister, who will come and act as housekeeper.
Lincoln is keen to hand Honoria back to Charlie, seeing he is a changed man, but Marion’s animosity towards him makes her reluctant. In time, she steps back from the discussion and reluctantly agrees to give Honoria to Charlie.
That night, back in his hotel room, Charlie thinks about Helen and seems to hear her giving him her blessing for Honoria to be reconciled with him. However, something happens which makes her change her mind: Duncan and Lorraine turn up, drunk, and cause a scene, having managed to discover Lincoln and Marion’s address and knowing they would find Charlie there. When they have gone, Marion starts to doubt whether Charlie can be a fit father to Honoria.
He phones Lincoln later on and Lincoln tells him that they will review their decision in six months about whether to grant Charlie custody of Honoria. Charlie reflects on the limbo to which he has been condemned, knowing that Helen would not want him to be so alone.
‘Babylon Revisited’: analysis
In some respects, ‘Babylon Revisited’ draws heavily on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s own memories of the Roaring Twenties, when he and his wife Zelda, and a number of other American expatriates, lived in Paris after the end of the First World War. Fitzgerald’s own battles with drink lie behind this story, as they do behind other stories such as ‘The Lost Decade’.
The title of the story summons Babylon, the city associated with sin and decadence in the Bible; Paris, with its nightclubs and entertainments, is a modern-day Babylon, capital of temptation and depravity.
‘Babylon Revisited’ can be seen as a farewell to the Roaring Twenties when wealthy Americans were treated like royalty in Paris: it was a time of heavy drinking, dancing, and, above all else, spending: something which Charlie reflects on in horror when he revisits some of the old night clubs in the city which he frequented during his dissolute period.
He is clearly a changed man, and as the focaliser of the story (which, though told in the third person, follows Charlie’s own thought processes and emotions closely throughout), he is likely to attract the reader’s sympathy for his plight and his longing for a second chance.
Marion’s animosity towards him seems to be founded on more than just his treatment of his wife, and we are invited to take her verdict – that he was responsible for Helen’s death – with a pinch of salt. She appears to have harboured an irrational dislike of her brother-in-law even before his drinking spiralled out of control, and is determined to cast him in the role of ‘villain’.
At the same time, we should not be so quick to condemn Marion’s ostensibly hysterical response to the cause of her sister’s death – ‘heart trouble’ – out of hand.
When Charlie recalls the circumstances surrounding the dissolution of his marriage, it’s clear that his treatment of his wife – driving her into the arms of another man, whom she kissed, and then locking her out of the house so she only narrowly avoided catching pneumonia – may well have contributed both emotionally and physically to her decline.
Certainly, Charlie appears to carry some personal guilt for her death. Guilt, of course, is not the same as responsibility: he may believe she died of unrelated health problems but still regret the fact that he treated her as badly as he did.
He also sees Honoria as a kind of second chance for himself: it is perhaps no coincidence that the names of both mother and daughter share the same initial letter. At one point, Charlie wonders how much of Helen he can detect in his daughter, and how much of himself. It is as if he partly views his daughter as the living incarnation of the wife whose death and mistreatment he can no longer for.
However, the central issue of ‘Babylon Revisited’ is whether the reader feels Charlie is entitled to a second chance with his daughter. It is clear that he is a reformed character, and he displays no signs of relapsing into his old ways. He religiously takes a drink every afternoon to remind him of his previous over-indulgence and all that it cost him in his life, but also, one suspects, as a test of willpower and resolve: if he can resist the temptation to turn one drink into two, or three, or more, he can conquer his former self.
Does he deserve to be eternally punished for his past transgressions? Marion is quick to change her mind about handing him custody of his daughter when, through no fault of his own, a couple of old friends show up, drunk. The fact that Charlie himself is no longer drunk and is quick to distance himself from them makes no difference to her.
Another theme of the story is money. Charlie is financially successful, and wants to use his money to provide a good life for his daughter. Previously, he viewed money as something to fritter away on taxis and drinks and clubs, and the money soon disappeared: another reason Marion, who has always struggled financially by comparison, resents him.
‘Babylon Revisited’ is, at bottom, a story about forgiveness and redemption. Where Marion doesn’t believe him worthy of either, Lincoln – and, perhaps, we who read the story – may be inclined towards a more generous view.