The end that comes before the end
Before we talk about the final scene at the Ritz, let's talk about the conclusion to Charlie's saga – the fact that Duncan and Lorraine show up and ruin everything. Interestingly, Charlie is confused about their arrival. He can't figure out how they knew where the Peters lived. If you've been paying attention and reading the text closely, then you know something that Charlie doesn't. Let's take a look at three key passages:
- Two familiar names from a long list of a year and a half ago. Charlie scribbled an address in his notebook and tore out the page.
"If you see Mr. Schaeffer, give him this," he said. "It's my brother-in-law's address. I haven't settled on a hotel yet." (1.8-9)
- Back at his hotel, Charlie found a pneumatique that had been redirected from the Ritz bar where Charlie had left his address for the purpose of finding a certain man. (4.10)
- Charlie was astounded; unable to understand how they ferreted out the Peters' address. (4.26)
What we know, is that Charlie left Lincoln's address – explicitly for Duncan – at the Ritz bar at the very beginning of the story. The "certain man" in the second passage is Duncan Schaeffer. This is a genius line on Fitzgerald's part; it subtly reminds us that Charlie left his address for Duncan (which we will very much need to remember in about two pages, at the end of the story), yet hints that the action at the story's start is already fading from Charlie's mind. In Charlie's memory, he left an address for a "certain man" – not for Duncan. This sets us up for Charlie's forgetfulness at the story's conclusion.
The natural question is, why would Charlie leave his address for an old drinking buddy? We're especially curious because it's clear, when Charlie runs into Duncan and Lorraine that he wants absolutely nothing to do with them. This is all part of the network of complications that make "Babylon Revisited" so intriguing. In Charlie's "Character Analysis,"
we talk about how Charlie might not be the brand new man he claims to be (or even believes himself to be). His action at the beginning of the text is one of the key reasons we have to doubt him.
That Charlie doesn't remember his action could mean any number of things. His refusal to remember might signal an unwillingness on his part to take responsibility for his own actions. He blames Lorraine and Duncan's intrusion on their having "ferreted" his address out of some informant, and then decides that it's their fault that he lost Honoria. In fact, the reader knows better – had Charlie not left his address for Duncan, had he not been back in his old drinking bar his first night in Paris – he would have gotten his daughter back. Charlie sowed the seeds of his own destruction from the very beginning. Sadly, this means that his downfall was inevitable all along, regardless of how well he played his cards and kept his cool with Marion.
Charlie's forgetfulness also might mean that his action at the beginning of the story could have been subconscious. Consciously, Charlie knows that the life he used to lead in Paris, the life of drinking, dancing, and all-around irresponsibility, was wasteful, extravagant, and destructive to both him and his family. Consciously, he wants to get as far away as possible from the life he used to live and the people (like Duncan and Lorraine) with whom he used to associate. Consciously, he thinks Paris is Babylon (see "What's Up With the Title?
"). But subconsciously, Charlie betrays a nostalgic longing for the good old days of parties and alcohol. In his " Character Analysis
," we look at the specific passages that reveal this subconscious longing to return to the days of parading about in the streets of Paris.
It's possible, then, that Charlie has a subconscious impulse toward self-destruction, to ruin his own attempts at reformation and land himself right back in the heart of Babylon. If this is the case, then we have an explanation for his leaving his address for Duncan: subconsciously, he wanted to destroy his chances at getting Honoria back.
The final scene of "Babylon Revisited," in which Charlie gets the bad news, refuses a second drink, and delivers a closing thought
By the time Charlie leaves the Peters' apartment, we know that he's lost Honoria. It's no surprise when he gets the sad phone call from Lincoln. But what is a surprise is that, when Charlie returns to the bar, he refuses a second drink from Paul.
It would have been very easy for Fitzgerald to let Charlie go back to drinking at this point. That is what we would expect from a shaky, supposedly recovered alcoholic who has just gotten some utterly crippling bad news. But Fitzgerald upends our expectations – he keeps the story rich and surprising, and he keeps Charlie's character complicated and enigmatic.
Because Charlie doesn't go back to drinking after losing Honoria, we have to reconsider his motives for not drinking in the first place. Perhaps it wasn't just to get his daughter back. We suspect that his transformation is more deeply rooted in losing his wife, his fortune, and his way of living. It also might be that Charlie holds on to his hope of getting Honoria back – he's thinking of the future, despite his claim that he's now too old to have nice thoughts and dreams.
This brings us to that final passage. Let's take a second look:
He would come back some day; they couldn't make him pay forever. But he wanted his child, and nothing was much good now, beside that fact. He wasn't young any more, with a lot of nice thoughts and dreams to have by himself. He was absolutely sure Helen wouldn't have wanted him to be so alone. (5.17)
You probably feel a little bit at a loss here at the end. What are you supposed to think? Are you supposed to be on Charlie's side? Or was it reasonable of Marion to think that his "I'm a new man" routine was just temporary? Will Charlie get his daughter back eventually, or is the worst yet to come as far as the atonement period is concerned?
The fact is, you're not supposed to think any one of these things. "Babylon Revisited" would be a lot easier for us to read if we knew the answers to these questions – if we knew what to think about Charlie's reformation, about the justice of who gets Honoria, about the nature of the years stretching ahead of Charlie (and the others suffering the aftermath of the '29 crash). But if we knew these things, "Babylon Revisited" would also be a lot less complicated, a lot less interesting, and a lot less famous.