Babylon Revisited Critical Essay Outline
F. Scott Fitzgerald is an American author most famous for his 1925 novel The Great Gatsby. However, Fitzgerald was also an avid short story writer, publishing dozens of short stories in magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post. The most famous of these are, among others, "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz," " The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," and at the top of critics' lists everywhere, the 1931 "Babylon Revisited."
"Babylon Revisited" is the story of a Charlie Wales, a former drunken party-goer who returns to Paris, the site of his former 1920s debauchery, shortly after the stock market crash of 1929. Charlie sees his world with new (sober) eyes and is both shocked and appalled by the extravagance that characterized his former life. The story is rooted in the financial crisis of its times. Fitzgerald wrote the piece in December of 1930, when the good times of the Jazz Age (also called the "Roaring Twenties") had come to an end and America was headed into the Great Depression. Charlie's horror with his own former waste and self-destruction is Fitzgerald's condemnation of a society who drank away the '20s.
"Babylon Revisited" is also a criticism of Fitzgerald's own participation in the party that lasted a decade. (Fitzgerald's fast-lane lifestyle epitomized his generation of Jazz Age party-goers.) He wrote in a letter to his editor that he "announced the birth of [his] young illusions in This Side of Paradise, but pretty much the death of them in […] stories like 'Babylon Revisited'" (source: Matthew Joseph Bruccoli and Scottie Fitzgerald Smith, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur).
Because of the connections to Fitzgerald's own life, many critics have looked in painstaking detail at the autobiographical elements of "Babylon Revisited." Like main character Charlie Wales, Fitzgerald was in a tumultuous and tabloid-ready marriage that was destructive to both him and his wife, Zelda. Fitzgerald also admitted to basing the character of Charlie's estranged daughter, Honoria, on his own daughter Scottie. For more details, check "Genre," where we discuss the biographical elements of the work.
If you're not hooked yet, you should know that "Babylon Revisited" is largely considered the height of Fitzgerald's short story collection. Or, in the words of several Fitzgerald scholars:
"'Babylon Revisited' stands as Fitzgerald's one virtually flawless contribution to the canon of the short story." (source: John Higgins, F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Study of the Stories, St. John's University Press, 1971)
"'Babylon Revisited' [stands as] Fitzgerald's best story." (source: Herbie Butterfield, "'All Very Rich and Sad': A Decade of Fitzgerald Short Stories" in Scott Fitzgerald: The Promises of Life, edited by Robert Lee. St. Martin's Press, 1989)
"Babylon Revisited [is] a beautifully executed story without a single false note, and […] one of the great modern short stories." (source: Arthur Voss, The American Short Story: A Critical Survey. University of Oklahoma Press, 1975)
Well, there you have it. Enjoy, folks.
It's a particularly relevant time to read "Babylon Revisited," a story in part about the aftermath of the stock market crash of 1929. F. Scott Fitzgerald takes a look back at a generation of reckless partying, drinking, and spending that has come to a screeching halt. Using his own personal experiences and the history unfolding around him, Fitzgerald paints the portrait of a man and a generation struggling with the deeds of the past and the bleakness of the future.
Fitzgerald – unlike the newscasters, bloggers, and campaigners you've been listening to recently – doesn't spend his time pointing fingers. He doesn't address the question of whose fault the crash was. Instead, he takes a good, hard look at the general irresponsibility that, in his mind, characterized the 1920s. He's interested in an attitude, not a scapegoat. And more importantly, he's interested in what that means for those who are there when the party comes to an end – those who suffer through the next day's (year's? decade's?) hangover.
Of course, the current financial crisis is no Great Depression. But instead of talking about the economic differences, we can think about the personal relevance "Babylon Revisited" holds for us. We're looking at the story of a man who is not only forced to make serious changes to his lifestyle, but also to face the mistakes of his irresponsible past and try seriously to atone for them. Economic trends aside, we're pretty sure you have, at some point in your life, been in his shoes.
"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.