Babylon Revisited : Theme

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Past and Present

The story takes place over just a couple of days in Paris in the fall of 1931, but the events of the present are experienced only in the light of the past. In Charlie’s mind and feelings, and the objective realities he must confront, the past hangs heavy and extends its influence over the present. Charlie may be a reformed character, but the grand foolishness of his past years in Paris, when he drank and spent to excess and ended up ruining his life, haunt him still. The importance of the past is apparent right at the beginning of the story, as Charlie inquires of Alix the barman about the whereabouts of all the people he used to hobnob with in Paris, when the city was awash with rich Americans who seemed to have nothing to do other than spend their money and live the high life. The past is immediately apparent in the Ritz bar where he makes his inquiries. It is empty compared to how he remembers it from the past. Every sight Charlie casts his eyes on is seen through a filter of the past. He does not have much interest now in his former stamping grounds, but only in what they conjure up for him in his memories. Everything seems like a shadow of its former self. It is as if he is now an outsider, whereas formerly he fitted in perfectly. The Left Bank, where formerly many American writers and artists lived, now seems “provincial” to him. Unfortunately for Charlie, his time in Paris ended in personal as well as financial disaster, so the memories that grip him of his life in the city are all difficult for him to deal with—he knows that he wasted his life there:“I spoiled this city for myself. I didn’t realize it, but the days came along one after another, and then two years were gone, and everything was gone, and I was gone.” He paid dearly for his folly: his wife died and he lost custody of his daughter. These are the “things most worth remembering the things that now he would always remember.” Whatever he does he cannot escape from it; he is like a prisoner to his past. Almost anything seems to trigger the bad memories. After Paul the barman asks him about the crash and what he lost, “Again the memory of those days swept over him like a nightmare—the people they had met travelling; then people who couldn’t add a row of figures or speak a coherent sentence. The little man Helen had consented to dance with at the ship’s party, who had insulted her ten feet from the table; the women and girls carried screaming with drink or drugs out of public places.”


Morality and Character

In the story, morality and character are set against wasteful materialism and irresponsible behavior. During his wild years in Paris, Charlie may have been an entertaining personality, but he lacked vital elements of good character. He had this in common with many of the other Americans in Paris during this period, the story suggests. The most famous line in the story, about the snow that fell in 1929, is “If you didn’t want it to be snow, you just paid some money.” In other words, money was considered the answer to everything. But Charlie finds out to his cost that this is not so. He now realizes that character represents a deeper value than the superficial materialism he formerly enjoyed. Character is an intangible moral thing, the bedrock of a good life. In part 1 of the story, for example, this is what goes through his mind: “He believed in character; he wanted to jump back a whole generation and trust in character again as the eternally valuable element. Everything else wore out.”


Father and Daughter Relationship

While much of the story is taken up with Charlie’s inner conflict and his conflict with Marion, his relationship with his nine-year-old daughter stands out as an oasis of harmony and love. Honoria’s love for her father is untouched by the troubles he has endured. When he visits her at the Peters’ apartment, she leaps into his arms crying “Oh, daddy, daddy, daddy, daddy, dads, dads, dads!” and he returns the endearments. In part 2, when Charlie takes his daughter to lunch at Le Grand Vatel, Fitzgerald creates a touching scene in which the easy rapport between father and daughter, and Charlie’s obvious desire to look after Honoria, leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind that Charlie is capable of being a good father. He has obviously thought a lot about parenting. He realizes that with Helen dead he must now try to be both parents to Honoria and encourage her to express her thoughts and feelings to him. He does not want to smother her with love, though, “for he knew the injury that a father can do to a daughter or a mother to a son by attaching them too closely: afterward, out in the world, the child would seek in the marriage partner the same blind tenderness and, failing probably to find it, turn against love and life.” Nonetheless, his daughter is the entire focus of Charlie’s life at this point; nothing is more important to him. At the end of the story, after he has been disappointed at his failure to secure immediate custody of Honoria, all he knows is that he“wanted his child, and nothing was much good now, beside that fact.”


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