Babylon Revisited by F Scott Fitzgerald
One cannot read Fitzgerald’s most renowned and acknowledged work Babylon Revisited without a consciousness of empathy that comes with participating in a personal tragedy- universalized in this sublime work. Fitzgerald wrote the story with the depth that comes with writer’s personal turmoil and tragedy. The story is intensely touching. The story is about a man who earns fortune, loses every thing, including wife and a daughter, and is reduced to penury drowned in alcoholism. The rich man determines to put together the lost pieces of life, once again.
The bull market of 1920s dramatically created millionaires out of ordinary men. Charlie Wales was one of them, who no longer needed an ordinary job. Charlie moves to Paris with his wife Helen to enjoy life that offered him untold wealth and bounties. When wealth comes, peace vanishes. That may not be a dictum, but that’s what might happen to those whose intoxication with fortune remains unmanageable. Wild parties, wild life style, heavy alcoholism couldn’t have brought anything but doom for Charlie Wales. His marital life ruptures; Helen dies; Charlie is admitted to a sanitarium. Meanwhile their young daughter goes to live with Helen’s sister and husband in Paris. Charlie recovers somewhat and makes a fresh attempt to build his shattered life when he attempts to regain the custody of his 9-year old daughter, Honoria.
The themes in the story of stock market crash, of drinking, of the life in 1920s and upheavals in protagonist’s life as a parallel perhaps to the rise and fall and recovery of the stock market symbolize the vicissitudes in internal and external world, in the world of a man and in society. The story explores the theme of alcoholism. Drinking is shown to shatter a man’s life, and sobriety is equated with homecoming. Charlie believes, he will lead a decent, peaceful and sober life with his daughter. When Marion initially denies Charlie the guardianship over Honoria, he heads for Ritz bar. However, the theme of his successful struggle to overcome alcoholism prevails. He is shown a sober man.
The story delineates virtue and vice. A peaceful family life is virtue, while wild parties, alcoholism, marital disputes are the vices. Wealth and fortunes may come and go, but strength of character must persist. Paris represents an old memory associated with vices- Wild parties, Ritz bar, superficial friends. Even as Charlie misses the Paris of his wild, inebriated days, he expresses his disgust now with the past life in Paris, and what Paris meant to him those days.
The theme of snow in the story symbolizes emptiness, death and a barren world. Marion blames Charlie for the death of her sister Helen, as a consequence of having been locked out in the snow. The memories of snow continue to haunt Charlie in his sober days. The snow depicts the lowest point of his life from where he cannot fall further. It is an eye-opener, a realization that wealth cannot bend reality.
The story also reminds us that a man is not always to be blamed for his misfortunes. Stock market crash was unexpected. But it is more important to spring back from misfortunes. This is what Charlie did. Circumstances teach lessons. Charlie is certainly not a weak man. He has his pride and honor intact even in his worst days. He is determined to gain honor and reputation that belonged to him. He believes guardianship over Honoria will bring back his honor. Although, Charlie has regained his fortune, having established his business at Prague, he has a lingering feeling of not having accomplished the honor that was lost. He feels his life incomplete and life’s mission unaccomplished without Honoria. A man’s honor and esteem are tied with providing for the family. A man feels honored and worthwhile when he does so. The symbolic aspect of this theme may be found in the presentation of a doll made by Charlie to Honoria. Honoria says the doll is her daughter. It is an emotional, happy and touching family rendezvous. It is the next best family reunion in the absence of Helen, his wife.
Finally, a word may be said about the literary style of the author. Fitzgerald writes in an informal style adopting the vernacular of the time. The reader is easily and smoothly transported to the time and place of the narrative. His writing falls under the genre of modernism, the style that came into fashion post-world war I. His writing style leaves the reader in doubt whether Charlie has reformed or not. When Charlie comes back to Paris to take the charge of his daughter, his conversation with Marion is one such compelling narration. The reference to Ritz bar and Charlie going there first on coming to Paris leaves us in doubt whether he has reformed or not. Like all optimists, I persist in my belief that he does.
Fitzgerald wrote during the time when the world was turbulent. Events with global proportions were taking place the time whose impact was universal. The story in Babylon Revisited depicts universal concerns relevant even today. The contemporary themes of dissolution, alcoholism, and alienation experience was being felt everywhere. The impacts of World War I, stock market crash, urbanization and migration had an impact on individual as well as families. The parallel between earth shaking changes at micro and macro levels cannot be missed as an underlying background where in the protagonist struggles towards stability as the society itself was trying to come to terms with the changes.