Everyone makes mistakes in their lifetimes and whether they are big or small, the mistakes people make and the ways that they atone for those mistakes define who they truly are. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Babylon Revisited”, Fitzgerald proves using symbolism, point-of-view, and tone, that no matter how hard one tries to hide them, the mistakes one make in the past stay with them forever, setting the tone for the future.
The past is symbolized by several elements within the story, primarily by people, places and things.
Early in the story, Charlie brings up an old acquaintance, Claude Fessenden, while talking to Alix the bartender. According to Alix, Claude Fessenden has run up a bill of over thirty thousand francs at the Ritz, gave a bad check to pay his debt, and is no longer welcome to return to the bar. Charlie knew Claude from his rambunctious days during the bull market, but now he’s “all bloated up” , bereft by the crash.
The next day, during lunch with his daughter, Honoria, two more figures from Charlie’s past come into play – Lorraine and Duncan, who are old friends of “a crowd who had helped them make months into days in the lavish times of three years ago”. They are instantly drawn to Charlie, and force him to remember the years he so vehemently tries to forget; questioning in amazement the sober man standing before them.
Charlie shoos the two along as best as he can without insult, as he knows these people are not good for him or his daughter to be around.
They are the living embodiment of the events of his past, and in order to be a new person, his old friends cannot be a part of his life. Charlie’s daughter Honoria is nine years old, practically an adult in Charlie’s eyes.
He missed out on the last three years of her life, and feels an urge to engrain some of himself into his child, but as Charlie put it, “It was hopeless to try to know her in so short a time”. Honoria is a constant reminder of his actions, how he made Paris his own personal playground while abandoning his daughter for more entertaining things, namely alcohol and hijinks.
Certain places seem to hit a nerve in Charlie, provoking memories that he’d rather forget. Prague is an example of this. He has avoided going back to America after his whirlwind around Paris, and has started up business again where his reputation is far less controversial, where “They don’t know about me” . The Ritz bar, where Charlie begins and ends the story is also a reminder of his past.
In the days of years before, the bar had been overrun with Americans, newly rich and drunk on French wine; however, when Charlie visits the bar again, it seemed almost a different place, quiet and dignified. “It had gone back to France”. The stark contrast of then and now gives a sobering perspective to a once drunk and lavish hangout.
All around the city, Charlie comes across memories of his past he sees a homey, casual restaurant selling a five course dinner for less than five hundred francs, and he suddenly wishes he had stopped to enjoy the city for what it really was. “I spoiled this city for myself. I didn’t realize it, but the days came along one after the other, and then two years were gone, and everything was gone, and I was gone” .
Alcohol symbolizes the two years he gave to vice, and acts as a constant reminder not to fall back into the same patterns, that he can never go back to that lavish lifestyle. Charlie takes a daily drink in the afternoon, not to give in to temptation, but to keep it in check. Charlie is always aware of the long-term effects alcohol has had on him, and avoids letting it get to him.
Even in stressful situations, Charlie is mindful not to turn towards alcohol for comfort, as shown after Lorraine and Duncan interrupt at his brother-in-law’s house. Charlie, even while outraged, “picked up his drink, set it down again”. He cannot drink in anger, for he knows this will draw him back to his past. In this same scene, Marion’s dress when discussing giving Honoria back to Charlie, “just faintly suggested mourning” .
This seems to be another reminder of Charlie’s past: his late wife Helen, and how he contributed to her death. The two years in which Charlie lived life in a careless drunken haze, and the somber year following are pointed out to him by nearly everything, wherever he goes. Charlie simply wants to have custody of his daughter, but Fitzgerald’s symbolism shows that because of his past, this simply cannot happen.
While symbolism must be read into to understand the deeper meaning, the point of view in “Babylon Revisited” tells the audience exactly how to feel about Charlie, that he is a good person, and that he sees how awful his behavior was three years ago. The point of view in this short story is limited omniscient, and a close third person on Charlie; this specific style of narration helps greatly in emphasizing the audience’s empathy with Charlie, and with moving the story forward.
Early on in the story the contrast between the past and the present is shown as Charlie walks through the Ritz, “he felt polite in it, and not as if he owned it” . There are always subtle hints of regret when referencing Charlie’s past. How he lament’s not ever trying a cheap restaurant, and his distaste toward the club that burst into motion as he stepped inside, saying “You have to be damn drunk” .
Charlie speaks bitterly of thousand franc notes given to orchestras for one song, and hundred franc notes handed to doormen, but he know that it hadn’t been given for nothing;
“It had been given, even the most wildly squandered sum, as an offering to destiny that he might not remember the things most worth remembering, the things that now he would always remember – his child taken from his control, his wife escaped to a grave in Vermont” .
Charlie knows now that all of his actions during his wealthy years were the cause of his downfall: the death of his wife, the loss of his daughter, and the year he spent in a sanatorium. The point of view with which “Babylon Revisited” is written gives the audience insight into the mind of Charlie, and reinforces how changes Charlie is. At lunch with Honoria, he “reintroduces” himself to his estranged daughter, which acts as him having a fresh start with her, an endearing wish indeed. While eating, Charlie for the first time is aware of how present Honoria is, and how others do not see this, how they are simply, “staring as if she were something no more conscious than a flower” .
The onlookers see Charlie actively engaging his daughter, and think him strange for it, and the audience feels strange along with him. Honoria is very quick to ask questions about her mother, and her living situations, and Charlie is not quite ready for this. He is caught unprepared by his nine-year-old daughter, and so is the reader. No one likes to be put on the spot, and Charlie is no exception.
When Lorraine and Duncan meet Charlie and Honoria at the café, they are rowdy and reminiscent of times long gone by spouting examples and reminders of Charlie’s behavior, but Charlie is no longer the west-egg clown they once knew. “Charlie indicated Honoria with his head” , and politely attempts to get rid of the pair of misfits; he doesn’t want to be inappropriate around his daughter.
This single sentence shows a world of change from three years ago to the present, and this is something the audience definitely picks up on. This simple, solitary action makes Charlie a good man in the eyes of the reader. From simple statements like this one, it is painfully obvious that Charlie is an estranged father struggling hopelessly to know his daughter. The way he ensured that Honoria made it safe into the house makes it impossible for the reader not to empathize with Charlie’s cause, and think less of the actions that put him in the situation to begin with.
Although the point of view of the narrator does all that it can to make the audience understand Charlie, it is evident that readers are meant to see both sides of the story. The detail with which the narrator describes Marion’s distaste for Charlie is unforgiving and even unseemly at times, turning Marion into a character driven by spite, shown by phrases such as, “Her dislike was evident in the coldness with which she spoke”. Marion may think otherwise, but the narrator again reiterates Charlie’s good character through giving small glimpses into what he is thinking.
Charlie stops himself from boasting in front of Lincoln, and keeps humble about his renewed success. After meeting with Marion and Lincoln, Charlie starts the next day with a hopeful spirit – things were finally starting to return to the way they were before the bull market – but these feelings cannot last for long, his past doesn’t allow that. During the negotiations for his daughter’s custody, Lorraine and Duncan interrupt, desperately trying to draw Charlie out of his stride and back to disgrace with them. It is because of his old friends’ surprise visit that Marion storms off, and Charlie cannot have his daughter.
Ghosts from his past ruined his chances of gaining custody, and he can only blame himself. Charlie left Lincoln and Marion’s address at the Ritz bar for Duncan, and it is proven by Fitzgerald that no matter how good one behaves, the past cannot be changed, and will always affect the present. Charlie started off the story with a drink at the Ritz bar, so it seems fitting that he ends the story in the same place, albeit on a much more somber note.
Fitzgerald uses symbolism and point of view to reinforce strong themes, but the tone of the story may be the most important method of all. In “Babylon Revisited”, Charlie spends years as a heavy alcoholic, and spends time before the story takes place in a sanatorium. This story parallels Fitzgerald’s life greatly, as he himself was an alcoholic (A Brief Life), and just before the story was written in 1931, his own wife, Zelda was diagnosed with Schizophrenia.
“Babylon Revisited” may be a self-portrait of Fitzgerald, and how he felt about his life. Fitzgerald experienced firsthand the booming economy of the 1920s and the Great Depression thereafter, and perhaps the several rises and falls of Charlie’s life acted as a sort of revenge for the wealth that Fitzgerald never experienced. Perhaps Fitzgerald wanted some sort of justification for his financial troubles, using “Babylon Revisited”, and a character that resembles him to prove that no good would come out of his being wealthy.
There are many theories one might come up with, but the tone of the story suggests that Fitzgerald has translated his own regrets into “Babylon Revisited”. Fitzgerald had financial troubles throughout his adult life, which weren’t eased by the expensive medical care his wife eventually required (A Brief Life). It is safe to say that Fitzgerald had many regrets, although what those were specifically would just be speculation.
He may have regretted marrying Zelda, for according to Hemingway, she encouraged his drinking to distract him from his novel, or he may have regretted going into literature, as it did not provide a lifestyle fit for Zelda. In “Babylon Revisited” Charlie regrets losing his wife after locking her out in a snowstorm, maybe Fitzgerald felt he locked out his wife, and ultimately lost her.
There are elements of spite toward the wealthy in this short story, the most notable of which being the observation of the narrator that, “the snow of twenty-nine wasn’t real snow. If you didn’t want it to be snow, you just paid some money”. Fitzgerald wanted the reader to go away with the thought that everything one does has an impact on the future, and not to taunt life, as anything one does can and will have a negative effect on future events.
There are countless ways to analyze F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Babylon Revisited”, but what Fitzgerald wanted the reader to understand after reading this story through his use of symbolism, point of view, and tone, was that the mistakes one makes in the past stay with them forever, so one should live life well, and without regret.