Table of Contents
2. Paris in the Roaring Twenties as to “Babylon Revisited”
3. Consequences of the Great Depression
“Stocks rise and fall, people load or work, but they go on forever.” (Fitzgerald 2). The lives of many people went down with the Wall Street Crash of 1929. This quotation is from American author, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Babylon Revisited”, which was published in 1931. The short story includes expatriate themes of the early 20th century in Paris that shapes the story of Charlie Wales, a businessman who had a lavish lifestyle before he lost his family and wealth after the crash. The Great Depression that came along with the crash changed the lives of wealthy Americans for the worse, who lived in splendour in Paris before. This term paper will analyze the consequences of the Great Depression shown in “Babylon Revisited” and how life, on the contrary, was in the Roaring Twenties. As the quotation above explains, everything, such as the stocks and the people go on forever and so does Charlie Wales.
2. Paris in the Roaring Twenties as to “Babylon Revisited”
After World War I, America’s economy increased enormously and the U.S. became the richest country in the World (De Lafayette 23). Therefore, a new era had begun and the country found pleasure in music, especially jazz, dancing, alcohol, drugs and partying (22). Many Americans moved to Paris in the 20s, because it provided more freedom and was “merely an inexpensive and exciting place to live” (Grawe 17). Fitzgerald’s short story “Babylon Revisited”, set in Paris, is intertwined with flashbacks of the past and the present. Thus, the brief flashback sequences of the story provide the reader with an insight into the lives of the Americans in Paris in the 20s.
“(…) the stillness in the Ritz bar was strange and portentous. It was not an American bar any more” (Fitzgerald 1). The story begins with the protagonist, Charlie Wales, revisiting Paris and stopping at the Ritz bar. The quotation above tells about the bar, located in Paris, who isn’t “an American bar any more”, which underlines the fact that Paris in the 20s was full of Americans who had become wealthy through investments in the stock market and the bar was even regarded as an American bar. It also tells us that Americans mostly went to bars, which shows that they liked to drink. The “stillness” is described as “strange”, as the bar used to be full of people and we assume that Charlie visited the bar frequently, as he makes a remark that the bar back then was as if “he owned it”, so he was used to hearing loud voices and laughter and describes the silence in it now as “portentous” (Fitzgerald 1). The Ritz bar, being famous in the 20s for wealthy Americans coming to drink “lime rickeys”, was a place where they felt like being at home (Samuel 58).
The short story begins with the dialogues between Charlie and the bartender, where Charlie asks about his former friends, which are quite a lot. A friend of his had even a “bachelor dinner” in the bar (Fitzgerald 1). Since Charlie had formerly spent a lot of time in the bar, it is instinctive for him to give the bartender his address that he should hand it to those who ask about him. He describes two of his friends, called Duncan and Lorraine as “one of a crowd who helped them make months into days in the lavish times of three years ago” (6). Lorraine Quarrles, whom he found “very attractive” reminds him by a letter that they had such “good times that spring”, “like the night” where Charlie and she, “stole the butcher’s tricycle, and the time [they] tried to call on the president and [Charlie] had the old derby rim and the wire cane” (13, 12). All the things they did three years ago, sound as if they were very young at that time, but Charlie is 35 and Lorraine is 30 years old, so they were mature, actually (2,6). The reason for their childish behaviour has to be high alcohol consumption and recklessness that accrues of having too much money at an early age.
Additionally, there are allusions that Charlie and Lorraine had far more feelings for each other than just being friends, as he states that she appeared to him “very attractive” and Helen, his wife, “was unhappy about it, though she said nothing” (13). Since the Americans felt restricted because of Puritanism and its strict beliefs in their country, they enjoyed more freedom in Paris, including having love affairs (Grawe 16). Another aspect, therefore, is that Lorraine tells about a memory “once [Charlie] hammered on [her] door at four A.M. [and she] was enough of a good sport to give [him] a drink” (Fitzgerald 14). Charlie and Helen met many people while travelling, “people who couldn’t add a row of figures or speak a coherent sentence” (16). He remembers “a little man Helen had consented to dance with at the ship’s party (…) [and] the women and girls carried screaming with drink or drugs out of public places” (16). Charlie thinks of the “lavish times”, which does not only refer to being lavish in the love he had for other people, especially, women or having much fun, but also to lavish money (6).
Americans at the time were regarded as “millionaires” and Charlie remembers “thousand-franc notes given to an orchestra for playing a single number, hundred-franc notes tossed to a doorman for calling a cab” (3, 4). This is a great sum of money he had lavished, just for having fun or to boast. Some call it generosity and others extravagance. Besides, Charlie “had never eaten at a really cheap restaurant in Paris” (2). There was nothing for which he didn’t spend much money. They lived a life of glamour and prosperity with a “five-course dinner, four francs fifty, eighteen cents, [and] wine included” (2). He himself describes the Americans in the 20s as “a sort of royalty, almost infallible, with a sort of magic around [them]” (3).
Charlie’s purpose of revisiting Paris is to take the custody of his daughter from his sister-in-law Marion since he has a good job in Prague now and is able to take care of her. When he tells Alix, the bartender that he is there to visit his daughter, Alix is astonished to know that he has a daughter and this shows that although Charlie had spent most of his time in the Ritz bar and the bartender did know almost everything about him, Alix didn’t know about his daughter. Although, being a father, he didn’t even mention it, which could be understood that he didn’t think of his daughter as important to talk about or his fatherhood to be mentioned. He probably didn’t even have much time for his daughter, since he had “champagne dinners and long luncheons that began at two and ended in a blurred and vague twilight” (4). Having fun and lavishing money was the main goal he had when living in Paris.
When Charlie goes to Marion’s house to speak with them about his daughter, Honoria, and his attempt to take her to Prague with him, Marion states that the time when he was “throwing away money [they] were living along watching every ten francs”, which means that even though Charlie knew that they didn’t do well financially, he didn’t help them (10). Marion’s husband, Lincoln, expresses that “while [Charlie] and Helen were tearing around Europe throwing money away, [they] were just getting along (…) [where he could just carry his] insurance” (12). Consequently, Charlie justifies himself that he “worked hard for ten years (…) until [he] got lucky in the market, like so many people.” (10). After he had gained much money, “it didn’t seem any use working any more, so [he] quit” (10). Marion thought of it as “injustice” that Charlie didn’t work at the end, but got “richer and richer” (12). Lincoln makes ironically a remark that all the money “stayed in hands of chasseurs and saxophone players and maîtress d’hôtel” to underline what a wasteful life they had lived, instead of helping others who weren’t as wealthy as them (12).
“You know I never did drink heavily until I gave up business and came over here with nothing to do.” (9). The wild lifestyle he cherished in Paris led him to become an alcoholic. Regarding the fact that his drinking “only lasted about a year and a half (…) until [he] collapsed”, he behaved dreadfully towards his wife, even going so far as to lock her out on a cold winter night (9). Charlie comments that “they were getting along badly”, possibly because of their wild lifestyle and drinking habits that resulted in pugnacity (10). Before the Great Depression, he was sent to a sanitarium because of his high alcohol consumption and with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 things got worse. In the following, I’m going to show the consequences of the Great Depression in regard to “Babylon Revisited”.
3. Consequences of the Great Depression
“Well, the big party’s over now” (12). The Wall Street Crash of 1929 in the United States followed the Great Depression that continued until 1940 (Schofield 56). There were approximate “tens of millions unemployed all across the Western world” (Booker 664) and the newspapers were full of “ruined financiers committing suicide by jumping out of skyscrapers” (Fraser 687). The good times of the Roaring Twenties had come to an end and “families lost everything including their ability to earn a living along with whatever savings they had accumulated.” (Schofield 56). “Babylon Revisited” shows how far the Great Depression had an effect on the lives of the Americans in Paris. At the very beginning, Charlie has a conversation with Alix in the Ritz bar, where he asks about old fellows he used to pass time together with “a year and a half ago” (Fitzgerald 1). The answers he gets aren’t enjoyable, since some fellows are “pretty sick”, some “back in America” and some aren’t allowed to come to the bar anymore since they can’t pay off debts (1). The Ritz bar is also Charlie’s first contact with his old and untamed self which was his old habit to make a visit there. When Charlie is asked for a drink, he replies that he is “going slow these days” since he is a recovered alcoholic now and was “going pretty strong a couple of years ago” (1). Moreover, we get further information on his life after the Wall Street Crash, that in fact he is a businessman in Prague where he makes a remark that “they don’t know about [him] down there”, which gave him the possibility to start from the beginning without bothering about the bad reputation he got after the crash (1).
Paris shows the changes after the crash perfectly because in the 20s there was “frenzy” on the streets which is now replaced by “stillness” and emptiness because most of the Americans are gone by now (1). While Charlie is passing through Paris, he revives old memories and soliloquizes: “I spoiled this city for myself. I didn’t realize it, but the days come along one after another, and then two years were gone, and everything was gone, and I was gone” (2). This soliloquy shows how much he regrets his past and confesses his guilt. He sees the city with different eyes now and knows that it wasn’t the city alone that spoiled the people with wild night lives, but the people themselves did. The title of the story emphasizes Paris’s significance, as Paris is compared to “Babylon”. “Babylon Revisited” is a metaphor for the biblical destruction of an ancient city which is described in the New Testament as evil and as a city of corruption. Thus, Charlie revisits “Babylon”, namely Paris, a spoiled city whose glory was destroyed by the stock market crash. However, Charlie isn’t enthusiastic about the city anymore and praises everything American, as the “fresh American loveliness” he sees on his sister-in-law’s face and their “comfortably American” house (3). He even thinks it’s “very funny to see so few Americans around”, what he possibly had thought of as boring before (3). The emptiness in the city that he likes now makes him possibly think of a purge. Places he used to frequent don’t awake interest to him anymore after seeing it “with clearer and more judicious eyes than those of other days” and following his jaunt through Paris by night, he thinks: “You have to be damn drunk” (4).
Moreover, the Great Depression shows that everything is ephemeral because the fortune which the Americans gained in the Roaring Twenties were all gone by the stock market crash and they were left behind with empty hands. Since they were “terribly lucky” at first, “it didn’t seem any use working any more”, so they just lived for the moment (10). The attitude of the Americans at that time is comparable to the Grasshopper in the famous Fable by Aesop “The Ant and the Grasshopper”, where the Grasshopper spends the summer singing and having fun, while the ant is working very hard preparing for winter. When winter arrives, it is the Grasshopper who starves and freezes in the cold. In this way, the Americans were as unprepared for the crash and the resulting Great Depression as the Grasshopper was for the winter. At the end of the story, Charlie and Paul, the head barman, “who in the latter days of the bull market had come to work in his own custom-built car”, talk about the loss in the crash (Fitzgerald 1). Here, Paul is a good example to show that during the boom even a barman could gain wealth. Paul states that “it’s a great change” now and that they do “about half the business [they] did” (Fitzgerald 15). He tells Charlie about those fellows who “lost everything” and sounds him out by saying that “he heard that [he] lost a lot in the crash”, whereupon Charlie answers “grimly”: “I did, (…) but I lost everything I wanted in the boom.” (15). In their conversation, Paul understands the losses of the market crash as purely financial and responds, therefore: “Selling short” (15).
The reason why many Americans made their fortunes in the early 20s was due to the bull market, by buying low and selling high. The Great Bull Market occurred between 1924 and 1929 and had a goal of “coining money in often suspect deals and manipulations” (Om-Ra-Seti 178). Mary Jo Tate explains the term “selling short” as “playing as a bear, selling and buying stock in the expectation that values will decline” (Tate 22). If the business is good, it is a bull market and on the contrary, if the business is poor and stocks go down, it is called a bear market. In the story, “selling short” illustrates a double-entendre because it can be referred to the stock market and to Charlie’s “spiritual loss”. Charlie is a recovered alcoholic, who lost his wife from heart disease in the pre-Depression era and his daughter’s guardianship to his sister-in-law after he had been sent to a sanitarium. Therefore, losing “everything” after the boom is touched upon an emotional level as he doesn’t only think of his financial loss here (Fitzgerald 15). That’s because he answers: “Something like that” when Paul takes his losses merely financial and doesn’t think about Charlie’s family (15). Thus, Charlie lost his wealth and reputation during the crash, but he actually lost his family and sobriety during the boom, or rather in the Roaring Twenties.
Apart from Charlie’s attempt to take his daughter to Prague and secure her guardianship, he also wants to purify his bad reputation. His bad behaviour towards his deceased wife made his sister-in-law hate him and to convince her that he is a recovered alcoholic now has been very difficult. Almost two years have passed since the crash and surprisingly Charlie could recover from the sanitarium and retain his fortune very quickly. He is surely one of the luckiest victims of the big stock market crash, as the reader gets to know about his old fellows who live on in poverty and illness. What causes him pain is that he wants his daughter back to have a family again. However, when Honoria asks him whether they are not rich any more, he says: “We never were” (5). He doesn’t want to talk further on this topic, as he probably thinks of what Marion and her husband could have told Honoria. His luck in business with an income that is bigger “than it was when [he] had money” is not comparable to his sister-in-law’s financial condition (3). They weren’t even able to afford a doctor “for a year” (3). It is surely something very difficult to spend your life with justifying yourself over and over again when you have got a bad reputation. And so does Charlie warrant that he did give up drinking by repeating that he takes “one drink every afternoon, and no more” (3).