Study Guide

Babylon Revisited Memory and the Past

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Memory and the Past

"And where is the Snow Bird?"

"He was in here last week. Anyway, his friend, Mr. Schaeffer, is in Paris."

Two familiar names from the long list of a year and a half ago. (1.5-7)

Notice how Fitzgerald opens his story by rooting it in the past. We know from the title and from this opening conversation that this is a story about returning to another time.

Outside, the fire-red, gas-blue, ghost-green signs shone smokily through the tranquil rain. It was late afternoon and the streets were in movement; the bistros gleamed. At the corner of the Boulevard des Capucines he took a taxi. The Place de la Concorde moved by in pink majesty; they crossed the logical Seine, and Charlie felt the sudden provincial quality of the Left Bank.

Charlie directed his taxi to the Avenue de l'Opera, which was out of his way. But he wanted to see the blue hour spread over the magnificent façade, and imagine that the cab horns, playing endlessly the first few bars of La Plus que Lente, were the trumpets of the Second Empire. (1.26-27)

Look at how romanticized Charlie's vision of Paris is. This is a great passage, because it is here that we so palpably feel Charlie's sense of longing – though repressed – for his old life. It's not as simple as a man who is disgusted with his past. Rather, he is simultaneously repulsed by and attracted to it. This veneer of color-drunk beauty still, in Charlie's mind, lies over the city.

"But it was nice while it lasted," Charlie said. "We were a sort of royalty, almost infallible, with a sort of magic around us." (1.44)

Look at the words Charlie uses to describe his past life in Paris. "Royalty," "infallible," "magic" – do these sound like the words a man who is truly reformed would use? The fact is that part of Charlie's past still appeals to him strongly. Perhaps Marion detects this mood when she responds, rather pointedly, that she thought Charlie had had enough of bars.

Zelli's was closed, the bleak and sinister cheap hotels surrounding it were dark; up in the Rue Blanche there was more light and a local, colloquial French crowd. The Poet's Cave had disappeared, but the two great mouths of the Café of Heaven and the Café of Hell still yawned – even devoured, as he watched, the meager contents of a tourist bus – a German, a Japanese, and an American couple who glanced at him with frightened eyes. (1.55)

Fitzgerald doesn't let his readers forget about the religious backdrop imposed on "Babylon Revisited" by the title. As Charlie is tempted by his old life of drinking and debauchery, we see the mouth of hell yawning open for him.

"I want to get to know you," he said gravely. "First let me introduce myself. My name is Charles J. Wales, of Prague."

"Oh, daddy!" her voice cracked with laughter.

"And who are you, please?" he persisted, and she accepted a role immediately: "Honoria Wales, Rue Palatine, Paris." (2.19-21)

Charlie pretends that he and is daughter are strangers, which is in part true at the moment. More importantly, it is a sign of what is to come – Charlie fears that he is losing his daughter and that he is running out of time to get to know her before she is an adult. In this conversation we see a vision of Charlie come back to Paris, years later, when his daughter is an adult, as he pretends here, and is also a stranger to him.

Going over it again brought Helen nearer, and in the white, soft light that steals upon half sleep near morning he found himself talking to her again. She said that he was perfectly right about Honoria and that she wanted Honoria to be with him. She said she was glad he was being good and doing better. She said a lot of other things – very friendly things – but she was in a swing in a white dress, and swinging faster and faster all the time, so that at the end he could not hear clearly all that she said. (3.57)

One interpretation of this passage is that it is an example of Charlie's tendency toward justification and self-delusion. Just as he pretends that he didn't leave his address for Duncan at the Ritz, he pretends that his wife gives permission for him to have Honoria, in order to ease his conscience.

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)

The "certain man" is, of course, Duncan Schaeffer. This is a genius line on Fitzgerald part. It subtly reminds us that Charlie left his address for Duncan, (which we will 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.

"No, no more," he said to another waiter. "What do I owe you?"

He would come back some day; they couldn't make him pay forever. (5.16-7)

These are two loaded statements at the end of the story. Charlie wonders what he owes the waiter for his tab, but he's also wondering how much more he has to pay before he's redeemed himself from past mistakes.

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