F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fiction presents not only the magic of the Jazz Age but also its immorality, materialism, and degradation of the human spirit. While Fitzgerald was probably not trying to specifically present existentialism in his works, Finkelstein describes Fitzgerald’s work as having an existential theme: “F. Scott Fitzgerald was of this milieu, and at the same time critically detached from it. He expressed its hard-boiled, disillusioned attitude through the deliberate use of alienated imagery” (171).
He manages to present the existential theme of alienation along with other existential issues; the characters in his fiction characterize the existential ideas of the absurdity of life, the absolute freedom of choice, and living with the consequence of one’s choices. In “Babylon Revisited,” the freedom of choice leads the characters to exploit wealth and freedom and, eventually, to regret past actions and try to make up for the abuse of this freedom. In “Babylon Revisited” the reader can see the absurdity of life through the rise, fall and rebuilding of Charlie Wales.
He chooses to drink and spend all his money. He loses everything in the stock market crash but attempts to rebuild his life. Charlie is distraught over the tragic loss of his wife but realizes that he must suffer the consequences of his prior actions.
Regaining custody of his daughter Honoria serves as a symbol that Charlie has regained control of his life. This paper presents the ideas of existentialism as they apply to “Babylon Revisited”. The greatest tenet of existentialism in “Babylon Revisited” is that life is absurd because there is no true meaning.
Individuals must create meaning; therefore they are constantly searching for themselves. Charlie Wales was searching for his true meaning and made some choices that led to bad consequences. The ultimate absurdity in this story is that Charlie makes the right decision to turn his life around, but because he must live with his consequences, he fails to regain custody of his daughter. Although Charlie believes he has moved beyond his previous profligate behavior, his sister-in law does not, and she makes the decision to keep his daughter from him.
The most absurd part is that Charlie is better suited now to take care of his daughter but Marion manages to remain in control of the situation. He works hard to build his life back up but one incident (that reflects his past life) turns everything upside down.
Charlie Wales made some choices that led to bad consequences. The ultimate absurdity in this story is that even though Charlie has made the right decision to turn his life around, he must live with the consequences of his previous decisions and fails to regain custody of his daughter.
The absurdity here deals with the fact that Charlie’s experiences run contrary to expectations. If he has indeed changed his life, he should be rewarded for his redemption; unfortunately, he is not. He works hard to build his life back up but one incident (that reflects his past life) turns everything upside down.
Although Charlie is now strong, his sister-in-law Marion is not, and she makes the decision to keep his daughter from him. Charlie may be better suited now to take care of his daughter, but Marion manages to remain in control of the situation.
Charlie makes the choice to go back to the bar where he had spent much time in the past, and he makes the absurdly innocuous choice to give the bartender the Peters’ address, which leads to the incident of Duncan and Lorraine’s visit to the Peters’ apartment that destroys the entire effort to get his daughter back.
The reader, therefore, can never truly know how big of a role Charlie plays in his own downfall. He lives, as we all do, in an absurd world and this absurdity magnifies the impact of even the smallest decision. The existential idea of free will is important in “Babylon Revisited.
” Sartre postulates a concept of being-in-itself that corresponds to one phenomenal world, and it does not lie within the power of the individual to choose it. Individuals exist by virtue of personal choice. He believes “there is no universal a priori structure of consciousness, no common human nature, no native set of desires shared by all men that dispose us to project one kind of values to the exclusion of others or to give being-in-itself one kind of meaning rather than another” (Olson 133). Each individual is absolutely free.
Charlie Wales exercised his free will prior to Helen’s death in a series of wasteful actions that Fitzgerald presents as having a connection to the biblical idea of “Babylon. ” The writings of the “Fathers of the Church describe Babylon as the ancient center of luxury and wickedness” (Baker 270).
Fitzgerald develops the Babylon motif by presenting Charlie’s actions as “catering to vice and waste” (215). Here, Fitzgerald’s work can be seen as assimilating Nietzsche’s idea that God is dead and each individual must be the god of himself in a world without a God (Lavine 325).
Since the existentialist mentality has as its basis the concept that an individual is free to make choices for the life he or she lives, he or she is absolutely responsible for the world in which he or she lives. The concept of being-in-itself did not cause Charlie to choose this life.
If, therefore, he made a bad choice, he cannot hold anyone else responsible. Not until after the stock market crash does Charlie realize the consequences of his actions and feel the guilt of those consequences. He realizes that, like all individuals, he is responsible for everything he does (Toor 157).
Charlie is held responsible for his actions in that he loses both his wife and daughter. He cannot reclaim his daughter until he accepts the consequences of his past. Charlie Wales pays the penance for his choice to drink and live the life of Babylon (Eble 42).
He realizes that he must pay the price: It [money] had been given, even the most wildly squandered sum, as an offering to destiny that he might not remember the things most worth remembering, the things that now he would always remember – his child taken from his control, his wife escaped to a grave in Vermont (Fitzgerald 216).
For Charlie, the suddenness of the Depression creates a sense of dislocation, a feeling that he is living in two worlds at once. He is committed to the idea of recovery and the new way of life he has created, but he still clings partially to many of the habits he formed during the boom (Way 91).
Charlie Wales makes the existential choice to live the “Babylonian” concept of “vice and waste. ” He now, however, feels the stress of his actions, and he makes the choice to try to reconcile his former failings. The recovery is the important change that Charlie makes.
His main purpose is to regain custody of Honoria. Charlie feels as if he has paid the price for his past choices and has sufficiently recovered enough to look after Honoria himself. He tells Marion and Lincoln that he is anxious to have a home and anxious to have Honoria in it.
He states that “things have changed radically” with him (Fitzgerald 220). The memory of Helen drives Charlie to work hard and make himself a better person. He is working to get Honoria not only for his own sake, but for the sake of his dead wife.
Fitzgerald is showing the sort of strength in Charlie that the reader does not see in Marion. Charlie has learned to control his drinking. When Marion finds out he had been in a bar before coming to her apartment, she chides him. He responds, “I take one drink every afternoon and I’ve had that” (213).
He is trying to prove that he can control his drinking habits. He has one drink to enjoy the idea and taste of alcohol but will not allow himself to drink in excess. This is his idea of control, “I take that drink deliberately so that the idea of alcohol won’t get too big in my imagination” (Fitzgerald 221).
He knows it will be difficult to persuade Marion to let Honoria go, but he is confident that if he accepts her recriminations patiently and convinces her of his newly acquired steadiness of character, he will ultimately be successful. Another element of Charlie’s recovery that Fitzgerald addresses is his renewed relationship with his daughter.
Fitzgerald makes it obvious in the beginning of the novel that Honoria was not the first thing on the mind of her parents during their Babylon days. When the barman asks why he is in town and Charlie responds that he is in Paris to see his daughter, the barman replies questioningly, “Oh-h!
You have a little girl? ” (211). Someone who knew Charlie fairly well during his drinking days did not even know that he had a daughter. Fitzgerald contrasts this idea of having no relationship with his daughter by showing with tenderness and affection the scenes in which Charlie tentatively establishes contact with Honoria.
He buys her toys and takes her to the circus, creating once again the atmosphere of love between them. Although he may be buying the love of his daughter, Marion grudgingly admits that Charlie has earned the right to his child (Way 91). Fitzgerald also shows the intense love that the child has for her father.
She wants to go with him to Prague and asks when she will get to be with him (217). Charlie has recovered to the point that he wants to be with his child and she wants to be with him. Ultimately, when Marion denies him the child, he again shows strength of character (Way 109).
He remains lonely but self-confident, “He would come back some day; they couldn’t make him pay forever” (Fitzgerald 230). Sartre believes that “there are moments of anguish when life loses its meaning: when the objects that formerly drew our attention fade into oblivion and the desires that had previously guided our conduct seem vain or petty” (Olson 131).
This creates an ugliness in the world to which people must react. These “moments of anguish” in “Babylon Revisited” occur when Charlie’s friends manage to show up at the most inopportune times: “Sudden ghosts out of the past: Duncan Schaeffer, a friend from college.
Lorraine Quarries; one of a crowd who had helped them make months into days in the lavish times of three years ago” (Fitzgerald 217). In a foreshadowing of the more crucial intrusion that Duncan and Lorraine will make later in the story, the first encounter with the duo is when they intrude on Charlie’s luncheon with Honoria.
They invite him to come sit in the bar with them and also invite him to dinner. They cannot accept the change in Charlie. Their intrusion is an unwanted product of Charlie’s past, and they are outside forces that affect his life that he cannot control (Cooper 52). Later in the story, Lorraine invites him to dinner, reminding him of their drunken exploits. As a temptress, she has lost her charm for Charlie. He instead goes to meet with the Peters and his daughter (Baker 272). Just as Charlie has regained permission to take his child, the final, and most detrimental, intrusion occurs.
Lorraine and Duncan crash the apartment, unmistakably drunk. They loudly and brutishly encourage him to join them for dinner. He tries feverishly to get them out of the apartment, but they are the reminders of his old life that Marion needs to change her mind. Lorraine will not let Charlie forget about his mistakes, “All right we’ll go. But I remember once when you hammered on my door at 4 a. m. I was enough of a sport to give you a drink” (Fitzgerald 227). Charlie knows that he has lost Honoria because of these outside forces that try to make him weaker.
Fitzgerald shows that Charlie is stronger because of his life change. Charlie dealt with the encounters by choosing to be strong, “Somehow an unwelcome encounter. His old friends liked him because he was functioning, because he was serious; they wanted to see him, because he was stronger than they were now because they wanted to draw a certain sustenance from his strength” (218). This strength has led to Charlie’s feeling of isolation. He goes to the Ritz bar in search of Duncan and Lorraine with the idea of finding them and letting them know that they possibly ruined his life.
They had done their sorry work and vanished from his life (Baker 273). Existential philosophy includes alienation from the world, from one’s fellows, from oneself (Finkelstein), and Charlie suffers this type of alienation. He has lost his family and his life. When he eventually fails to regain custody of Honoria, he questions why life dealt him this hand: “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 himself. He was absolutely sure Helen wouldn’t have wanted him to be so alone” (Fitzgerald 230).
“Babylon Revisited” opens in the Ritz bar, a symbolic prison for those trapped in Charlie’s lifestyle. Charlie spent many nights in the “prison” of the Ritz bar, when he was in his prime party era. Charlie drinks himself into a sanitarium before he begins to come out of the prison of alcoholism.
The story then ends again in the Ritz bar. Charlie has come full circle since the beginning of the story. He found happiness in knowing that he would take Honoria home, and then his past of loneliness finds him. The intrusions lead to his ultimate loneliness again (Griffith 237).
He is sitting in the Ritz bar when he finds out that Marion has refused to let Honoria go. He realizes that his loneliness will not end because of the mistakes that he has made: “Again the memory of those days swept over him like a nightmare… the men who locked their wives out in the snow, because the snow of twenty-nine wasn’t real snow.
If you didn’t want it to be snow, you just paid some money” (229). The prosperity that he once had is now imprisoning him in a life of solitude and loneliness. The sentence that he must pay in this prison is six more months of loneliness before he can try to get custody of Honoria again (Baker 274).
LeVot, in his discussion of Fitzgerald’s life, notes that this story marks the end of an era. This is the foreclosure of the almost divine privileges Americans had enjoyed before the Depression. “Charlie Wales feels like a king stripped of his kingdom, his past, his illusions” (256).
Ten years after he wrote the story, Fitzgerald stated that the story was his farewell to youth. Just as Fitzgerald is fearful that his own irresponsibility will pass to his daughter, Charlie tries to wipe out the past so it will not affect Honoria. LeVot states, “A great wave of protectiveness went over him. He thought he knew what to do for her.
He believed in character, he wanted to jump back a whole generation and trust in character again as the eternally valuable element” (256). He wants to revive an earlier virtue, for the sake of Honoria. This revival will help to alleviate the loneliness he feels without his daughter.
Fitzgerald felt the loneliness brought about by his addiction to alcohol (LeVot “Fitzgerald in Paris” 51). Bruccoli states that when Charlie remembers his Paris nights that these were probably Fitzgerald’s own memories, “When Fitzgerald went pub-crawling by himself, it was sometimes hard to terminate his revels” (239).
His talent and charm often rescued him from the social morasses he created. Bruccoli shares an incident when Fitzgerald showed up drunk at the Paris Tribune and ripped up copy. He sang and insisted that the other reporters join in. When several friends tried to take him home, he insisted that they tour the bars.
He finally passed out, but when they delivered him to his apartment he refused to go in. They eventually had to carry Fitzgerald into to his apartment, kicking and screaming. This account was forgiven, as were most of his other escapades (239).
Charlie Wales, unlike Fitzgerald, has not been forgiven and remains separated from his wife and daughter due to alcoholism. He had to work hard to regain his life. The existential absurdity is that he was unable to get custody of Honoria, although he paid the penance for his past sins.
Charlie chose to live the life of “Babylon” and lost everything. After doing everything right to change his life, the outside forces of Duncan and Lorraine ruined his plans to make a home with Honoria. These outside forces are the consequences of the past life that Charlie chose to live.
Existentialists not only believe in free will but also living with the consequences of past decisions. Charlie’s past decisions led to his ultimate loneliness and alienation. Sartre makes the point that alienation is one of the greatest tenets of existentialism.
Although Fitzgerald is not an existentialist, his characters in “Babylon Revisited” are good examples of the ideas of the existentialist movement and how those ideas affect and shape a person’s existence.
Baker, Carlos. “When the Story Ends, ‘Babylon Revisited. The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald: New Approaches in Criticism. Madison, Wisconsin: U of Wisconsin P, 1982. 269-277.
Bruccoli, Matthew J. Some Sort of Epic Grandeur. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.
Finkelstein, Sidney. Existentialism and Alienation in American Literature. New York: International Publishers, 1965.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. “Babylon Revisited” and Other Stories. New York: Macmillan Scribner Classic, 1988. 210-230.
Griffith, Richard R. “A Note on Fitzgerald’s ‘Babylon Revisited. ‘ ” American Literature 35 (May 1963): 236-239.
Lavine, T. Z. From Socrates to Sartre: the Philosophic Quest. New York: Bantam, 1984.
LeVot, Andre. F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography. New York: Doubleday, 1983.
LeVot, Andre. “Fitzgerald in Paris. ” Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual 5 (1973): 49-68.
Olson, Robert G. A Short Introduction to Philosophy. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1967.
Toor, David. “Guilt and Retribution in ‘Babylon Revisited. ‘” Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual 5 (1973): 155-64.
Way, Brian. F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Art of Social Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s, 1980.