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When one is unable to cope with the implications of one’s previous actions, they often create false illusions. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, “Babylon Revisited”, takes place in Paris during the beginning of the Great Depression. Charlie Wales, who made his fortune by shorting stock, is left reeling from his reckless behavior, the most serious leading to the death of his wife, Helen. He believes he is a changed man, and seeks to regain custody of his daughter, Honoria, from his sister-in-law, Marion. After deep discussion about Charlie’s character, Marion agrees to give Charlie his daughter, but two of Charlie’s former friends, Duncan and Lorraine, drunkenly intrude on the conversation. They ultimately persuade Marion that Charlie is not prepared for the responsibility of having custody of Honoria. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited” highlights the corrosive effect of money on one’s character and the self-destructive nature of guilt, which is exemplified through the contrasting ideals of Charlie’s past and future.
Fitzgerald utilizes metaphor and and two examples of diction to portray Charlie’s self justifying mentality when faced with criticism of his past actions. As he walks through the streets of Paris, Charlie reminisces over his behavior in the past, often with a feeling of regret. He feels guilt over his debaucherous actions, but when describing his wife’s death, he believes that “[she] escaped to a grave”. The use of the word “escaped” creates a more positive connotation around the tragic death, and suggests that Helen died under her own free will. Charlie dodges around the undeniable fact that he is to blame for his wife’s death in order to avoid taking responsibility for his actions. He relieves his pain by sharing the blame with others, hoping it provides closure. Contrary to what Charlie believes, his inability to tackle his inhibitions stunts his moral growth. He strives to prove his growth by not having the past influence him, yet he still demonstrates the cowardly attitude that led to his past mistakes. The specific word choice emphasizes Charlie’s fear of taking the blame, which denies him the opportunity to learn from his mistakes. When discussing the reasons why Charlie deserves custody of Honoria, Marion blames Charlie for Helen’s death, which sends “an electric current of agony surging” through him. The metaphoric comparison to an electric current emphasizes the intense pain that Charlie feels when blamed for his wife’s death. The greatest pain derives from the truth, suggesting that he knows he is responsible, but is unable to cope with the truth. The use of “surging” also suggests that he buries his feelings deep inside, thus leading to the overwhelming rush when they resurface. He continues to self justify his actions in order to prevent him from facing his guilt, and thus inhibits the healing process. Charlie is comfortable with the illusion of growth that he created for himself, which allows him to give off the appearance of a changed man without actually having to be one. Exposing this illusion brings about agony because it dismantles his false appearance, therefore revealing that he is more closely linked with the past than it seems. David Toor supplements my position by arguing that Charlie actively tells people he is able to beat an issue like his alcoholism in order to prevent himself from “try[ing] to face and beat the deeper problems”. Toor interprets Charlie’s internal conflict as an illusion of change suppressing an ugly truth. He constantly works on trying to maintain the appearance of a changed man by citing superficial examples, like his alcoholism. In his attempt to convince the people around him, Charlie also tries to convince himself that he is not responsible for the actions that lost him custody of Honoria. When faced with the truth that he is not a changed man, feelings of guilt arise. The illusions behaved as a shield, and provided the opposite of their intended purpose. Dodging responsibility persuaded Charlie to not take a definite move towards a transformation, which allowed him to remain in his comfortable false reality. Fitzgerald illustrates Charlie’s internal conflict in remaining in his comfortable world of illusions and having to take responsibility for his actions, and comments on the negative effects of wealth.
Additional themes can be interpreted from Charlie’s internal struggle, such as the negative effects of money on one’s morals. Fitzgerald uses personification to demonstrate the ensnaring effect of money, and uses juxtaposition to describe the differences in pre and post crash Paris, which directly correlates to and symbolizes Charlie’s life in regards to the fall of his character due to wealth. As Charlie walks through the streets of Paris, he observes nightclubs “devouring” an American couple. By giving the nightclubs the ability to devour people, the author suggests that these places are able to trap people through temptation. Devouring is defined as to consume voraciously, often when needing sustenance. The clubs feed off people’s money, and possibly their morals also. The vices of Paris seek to satisfy their need for shallowness, and the expense of one’s character. During one of Charlie’s walks through Paris, he utilizes contrasting colors when describing the setting. The “bleak and sinister hotels were dark”, while the French crowd emulated more light. The differences in setting represent the differences in Paris before and after the influx of money. The light suggests innocence to the vices that wealth brings, such as lust and devotion to material objects. Darkness is a loss of light, and therefore a loss of innocence. The setting of Paris directly correlates with Charlie’s character. He is unexposed to the often obscure consequences of excessive spending. The darkness conceals these effects, yet makes it so that he values the frivolous things in life, corrupting his character. Paul Bodine further proves my argument by acknowledging the symbolism between the stock market crash and Charlie and explains how it proves “how far Charlie had fallen in his pre-crash days as well as the dangers that still threaten him”. Bodine emphasizes the contrast between European elegance and the lowly appearance of money traps. He argues that money gives off the illusion of elegance and class, but in reality does quite the opposite. Bodine also expands on the theme of the corrosiveness of money by applying it to America as whole during the Great Depression. Unchecked spending devalued money, which then led to a reckless culture. Now that the money is gone, society must attempt to undergo a transformation similar to Charlie’s. Fitzgerald further displays the ambiguity of Charlie’s life by revealing how Charlie regrets having no value for money, yet will not take action in order to resolve his issues.
The corrosiveness of money and the self destructiveness of guilt both create a larger overall purpose: Charlie’s contrasting past and future. The author heavily uses symbolism by having contrasting characters represent certain time periods, which is illustrated through the use of metaphor and diction. When Charlie encounters meets old friends from the past, he describes them as “sudden ghosts”. The comparison to a ghost suggests that they are trapped in another world, in this case, the past. They are now irrelevant as a lack of money has put an end to their drunken desires. Charlie tries to dissociate himself from his past, yet the ghosts continue to haunt him in the present, aiming to disrupt the hope of a desirable future. They also tear down Charlie’s perception of freedom from his previous ties to alcohol and waste, their presence suggests that Charlie is more closely related to his past than he aims to be. While Charlie avoided the past, his “heart leaped” when Honoria suggests that she wants to live with him. The use of leaped emphasizes Charlie’s desire to escape into the future. After a life full of regret, he desperately craves a new beginning, and will do anything to achieve that. Charlie creates illusions of transformation and a dissociation of the past in order to prove to himself and Marion that he is a fitting father. Marion and the drunken friends, who symbolize the present and the past respectively, tear down these falsehoods, to expose that Charlie can never truly escape his past without taking responsibility for his actions. Seymour Gross further supports my argument that Charlie is more closely associated with his past than he appears to be. His “proximity to the symbols of the life he hopes for is as deceptive as was his proximity in the opening scene to the symbols of life he left behind him”. Gross infers that the presence of the bar culture in Charlie’s life suggests he is not as changed than he seems. In reality, Charlie often goes to bars, yet examines his past mistakes with a critical tone. He never can take the blame for his wife’s death, so he never fully resolves the problems of the past. These problems come back to haunt him in the form of the ghosts of his drunken friends. The unresolved past demands attention, so it prevents Charlie from escaping into a world of illusions, the future. Charlie is torn between the man he aspires to be, and the inhibitions that are holding him back to his past.
Fitzgerald composes a story that uses themes from internal struggle to craft a complex theme of differing ideals. At first glance, “Babylon Revisited” may seem to be a story about a man battling against his sister in law for custody of a child. However, a closer examination reveals an identity struggle, and how Charlie is caught between past mistakes and future hope. Fitzgerald also criticizes the excessive spending culture deeply rooted in American society. Through the setting of Paris, the author emphasizes the moral corruption due to wealth. By depicting Charlie’s life, Fitzgerald warns of the negative consequences of escaping responsibility, and the danger of false perceptions.
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