Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Inescapability of the Past
Even though Charlie’s wilder days have long since passed, he’ll never be able to truly escape them. Although he actively tries to avoid reminders of the Paris he used to know, they nevertheless follow him everywhere. When he goes to lunch with Honoria, for example, he can find only one restaurant that doesn’t remind him of drunken meals that lasted for hours. When he walks through Montmartre, old haunts surround him. Even the things that have changed remind him of his past, simply because the newness of them strikes him as odd. The scared tourists heading into cafés are pale imitations of the partiers he and his friends once were, and the once-bustling places that these tourists frequent are now nearly empty. Charlie would like to put his failed marriage behind him, but he cannot. Marion constantly reminds him of his mistakes, which she clings to almost obsessively. The past informs the present: because of what Charlie did to Helen, he is prevented from living with Honoria. Perhaps the most ominous figures from the past are Duncan and Lorraine, living reminders of the bad old days, who still try to follow him wherever he goes.
If Charlie wants to shake off the past, however, some part of him simultaneously can’t let it go. He asks his cabbie to drive to the Avenue de l’Opera, he goes to Montmartre and visits the places he used to frequent, and he begins and ends the story in the familiar Ritz bar. While these incidents suggest that the past still haunts Charlie, we can’t help thinking that Charlie is actually looking to be haunted. He must know, consciously or subconsciously, that visiting the scenes of his former life will fill him with regret and possibly even longing. Perhaps most damning of all is the fact that Charlie gives Lincoln and Marion’s address to Alix, asking him to pass it along to Duncan. He later ignores Lorraine and refuses to give his hotel address to them, but his protestations mean nothing because he’s already told them where they can find him. We know that some part of him must want the debauchery of the old days back in his life, thereby planting the seeds of his own failure.
The Purity of Paternal Love
Fitzgerald characterizes the love that fathers and daughters feel for each other as the only pure, unadulterated kind of love in the world. Other types of love, however passionate or intense they may be, are always complicated by dislike or mistrust. Charlie and Helen loved each other, for example, but they tormented and abused each other: Helen kissed other men, they fought, and Charlie locked her out in a snowstorm. Lincoln and Marion demonstrate another type of marital love, one that’s genuine but strained by financial and familial difficulties. To some degree, Charlie loves Lincoln and Marion, whom he still considers family. At the same time, however, he thinks of them as adversaries, and their mutual distrust of each other makes their love less than pure. Only Honoria and Charlie love each other in an unadulterated way. They often speak of their love for each other, and she asks him whether he loves her more than anyone in the world. Marital and familial love may fall apart with regularity, but the love between children and parents is the most pure.
Many scenes in “Babylon Revisited” take place on the streets of Paris, where people go when they’re lonely or angry. Charlie forces Lorraine and Duncan out onto the street, for example, when they surprise him at Marion and Lincoln’s house, and they leave in a fit of anger. When Charlie wanders through Montmartre, the nervous tourists and overeager nightclub employees only make him feel more solitary. Most obviously abandoned to the dangerous streets is Helen, whom Charlie had locked out after fighting with her. The fact that Charlie locked her outside during a snowstorm is a particularly cruel gesture in this story, which characterizes the outdoors as a place of sadness and danger. Fitzgerald emphasizes the melancholy quality of the outdoors by contrasting it with the indoors, which he portrays as warm, cozy, and safe. All the scenes that take place in Marion and Lincoln’s house, for example, connote a happy family atmosphere created by responsible adults. When Charlie finally leaves their house toward the end of the story, he is appropriately cast back into the lonely streets.
The Ritz Bar
The bar at the Ritz Hotel symbolizes Charlie’s spiritual home. Charlie is a wanderer: he no longer lives in America, his birthplace, and we never see him in Prague, his new home. He visits Marion and Lincoln’s house as an interloper, more of a resented outsider than a member of the family. The place that closest resembles his home, however, is the bar at the Ritz, and the story begins and ends there, emphasizing its importance to Charlie. Like a real home, the walls of the Ritz bar have witnessed the changes that have happened to him. Whereas he once spent many late, drunken nights at the bar in his wilder days, he now sits there to consume his one customary drink every day. Charlie and Alix, the bartender, gossip about the people they both once knew, drinkers and ex-drinkers who have fallen on hard times, just as two family members might gossip about wayward relatives. One the other hand, the bar could never be a fulfilling substitute for a real home. As Charlie sits with Alix at the end of the story, he thinks about how terribly alone he is. The bar may be the closest thing Charlie has to a home, but its comforts are inferior in every way to those of an actual household.