Commentary by Karen Bernardo
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited,” the protagonist Charlie Wales has come to Paris to try to get custody of his daughter Honoria from his late wife’s sister Marion, to whom the child was entrusted after Charlie fell apart several years before. In order to get Honoria back, he needs to present a facade of being much more stable than he really is; but he is fully aware of the split between the fantasy he has created and the reality he lives.
It is natural that in returning to a place where one has once lived, one should revisit familiar haunts, and Charlie spends the first scene of the story in a bar. From this we learn that Charlie has had a problem with alcohol (we suspect he still does), and that this is a situation all too common in his social circle. It is through Charlie, and his description of his world, that we come to understand the sad dissipation of his life. The opening paragraphs establish that he has been away for a while, and much has changed. He describes what his old haunts are like now, alluding to the fact that the bar used to be busier; that many of his friends have gone away, or have gone to the dogs, or have gotten sick; that no one has the kind of disposable income that they used to; that he used to drink excessively, but has disciplined himself to one drink a day. We see that Charlie is sincerely trying to re-invent himself, and we think he deserves a chance.
Significantly, however, the world Charlie depicts when he’s sober is a much more dull, colorless, lifeless place than the world he recalls from his drinking days. We see this in contrasting Charlie with either his still-drinking friends or with his daughter Honoria, both of whom still see the world as wonderful and full of possibilities. Charlie, on the other hand, realizes that “all the catering to vice and waste was on an utterly childish scale, and he suddenly realized the meaning of the word ‘dissipate’—to dissipate into thin air; to make nothing out of something. In the little hours of the night every move from place to place was an enormous human jump, an increase of paying for the privilege of slower and slower motion. He remembered thousand-franc notes given to an orchestra for playing a single number, hundred-franc notes tossed to a doorman for calling a cab.”
Nonetheless, this is a world his sister-in-law Marion would never be able to understand. Marion emphatically has no time for Charlie, and we can see that her animosity stems from the time when he played fast and loose with life in general, and with the heart of her sister Helen in particular. She refers to an incident when Charlie locked Helen out of the house in the snow, apparently a relatively short time before Helen’s death. Although there is no real medical connection between the snow incident and Helen’s heart attack, Marion still connects the two events in her mind because they occurred about the same time, and unjustifiably holds Charlie responsible for the death of his wife. Because Marion sees her dead sister as a martyr, she sees Charlie as the villain; the possibility that Helen could have played an active part in the breakup of their marriage—or that it just might not be any of Marion’s business—would never cross Marion’s mind.
If the gray, lifeless aspect of Paris is represented by Marion, its decadent joie de vivre is represented by Charlie’s friends Lorraine and Duncan, whom Fitzgerald describes as part “of a crowd who had helped them make months into days in the lavish times of three years ago.” They are still living the giddy drunken lifestyle Charlie is trying to rise above, and we can look at them and see clearly what Charlie must have been. As Fitzgerald writes, “They were gay, they were hilarious, they were roaring with laughter,’ and they see nothing wrong with barging into Marion’s house and inviting Charlie to dinner, at what is certainly the most inopportune time possible. Fitzgerald observes that Lorraine and Duncan like Charlie “because he was functioning, because he was serious; they wanted to see him, because he was stronger than they were now, because they wanted to draw a certain sustenance from his strength.” In that respect, they are leeches, because they have nothing but weakness to offer him in return.
Charlie unceremoniously ushers them out of his inlaws’ house, but at the end of the story, after he is denied custody of Honoria, he “went directly to the Ritz bar with the idea of finding Lorraine and Duncan.” Rationally he must know that by associating with them again, he is going to get sucked back into the same patterns he went to rehab to break. Yet he does not know any other way of living in Paris; he does not know any other way of enjoying his life.
As the story ends, Charlie is sitting in a bar with an empty whiskey glass in front of him; he has refused a refill, but if he continues to sit in bars as he used to when he was an active alcoholic, he will not refuse refills forever. His goal in staying sober was to get immediate custody of his daughter, and that has been quashed, at least temporarily, by the appearance of his drunken friends. In “Babylon Revisited” (which is loosely based on the events of Fitzgerald’s own life), the author shows how difficult it is for an addictive personality to break out of the cycle of addiction and start a new life. It should come to no surprise that although Fitzgerald spent the last fifteen years of his life trying to stop drinking, and get off the endless merry-go-round of the alcoholic lifestyle. ‘Babylon Revisited’ is one of the most harrowing glimpses of the problem ever written.
“Babylon Revisited” can be found in the collection The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A New Collection.
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