So much for the effort and ingenuity of Montmartre. All the catering to vice and waste was on an utterly childish scale, and he suddenly realized the meaning of the word "dissipate" – to dissipate into thin air; to make nothing out of something. In the little hours of the night every move from place to place was an enormous human jump, an increase of paying for the privilege of slower and slower motion. (1.56)
Both in Charlie's personal life and in the world in which he lives dissipation is a central theme of "Babylon Revisited." Nothing has been made out of something in the sense that Charlie's wife is dead, he has lost his daughter, and his fortune is gone. The stock market crash, means that much of America's wealth has dissipated as well, disappeared into nothing.
Going out of the restaurant, a man and a woman unexpectedly hailed him.
"Well, the old Wales!"
Sudden ghosts out of the past. (2.38-41)
There's something dark about Lorraine and Duncan right from the start. Fitzgerald's word "ghost" is carefully placed here. It's important that they seek out Charlie – repeatedly – in this story, as though he cannot escape them. They increasingly seem like predators, preying on the weak. We can't forget, however, that Charlie began the story by looking for people like Duncan and Lorraine.
They were waiting. Marion sat behind the coffee service in a dignified black dinner dress that just faintly suggested mourning. (3.1)
Interesting – what is Marion mourning? This brings Helen's death to mind, for which we know she blames Charlie. But we have to ask, what else has been lost that Marion may be mourning? In the global context, an entire decade of decadence has been lost in the stock market crash. Marion may be mourning on more than a personal scale.
His first feeling was one of awe that he had actually, in his mature years, stolen a tricycle and pedaled Lorraine all over the Étoile between the small hours and dawn. In retrospect it was a nightmare. Locking out Helen didn't fit in with any other act of his life, but the tricycle incident did – it was one of many. How many weeks or months of dissipation to arrive at that condition of utter irresponsibility? (4.13)
This is an interesting passage, because it complicates our understanding of the word "dissipation" in "Babylon Revisited." At first, we assumed that Charlie was talking about the dissipation that occurred after and as a result of the stock market crash. But here, he talks about dissipation before the crash. This second use of "dissipation" is in line with his statement at the end of the story that he lost everything he wanted in the boom, not in the crash.
His first feeling was one of awe that he had actually, in his mature years, stolen a tricycle and pedaled Lorraine all over the Étoile between the small hours and dawn. In retrospect it was a nightmare. (4.13)
In 1929 Fitzgerald indeed stole a baker's tricycle and pedaled all over Paris with it, "thumping the Russian doormen with a long loaf of bread" (Source: James R. Mellow, Invented Lives: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1984). Here we see that some of Charlie's shame and embarrassment at his juvenile behavior might reflect Fitzgerald's own regret.
Marion shuddered suddenly; part of her saw that Charlie's feet were planted on the earth now, and her own maternal feeling recognized the naturalness of his desire; but she had lived for a long time with a prejudice – a prejudice founded on a curious disbelief in her sister's happiness, and which, in the shock of one terrible night, had turned to hatred for him. It had all happened at a point in her life where the discouragement of ill health and adverse circumstances made it necessary for her to believe in tangible villainy and a tangible villain. (4.41)
Fitzgerald makes it clear that Marion sees Charlie as a symbol, and that she uses him as a whipping boy for everything she hates about people like him. We start to feel that her attitude towards him just isn't fair. After all, why should Charlie take the fall for the faults of his entire generation? And yet, isn't this what Fitzgerald asks of his character as well? To represent the wasteful extravagance and too-late regret of a generation of Jazz Age drinkers and party-goers?
"I heard that you lost a lot in the crash."
"I did," and he added grimly, "but I lost everything I wanted in the boom."
"Something like that." (5.4-7)
Short selling is a risky stock market move in which the buyer sells a stock before he buys it. The idea is to sell it for more than he buys it, but if the price rises instead of falling he loses money. Charlie "short sold" his family in the sense that he under-valued it; he didn't recognize the worth of his wife and daughter until it was too late.
He would come back some day; they couldn't make him pay forever. (5.17)
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. This is also a relevant statement in the context of what's going on in America at the time. Fitzgerald saw the crash as a punishment for the wasteful extravagance of the 1920s. How long will Americans have to pay for their mistakes?