“Babylon Revisited”: chronology and characters
by James B. Twitchell

In recent years there has been a small critical hubbub over the completeness of Charlie Wales’s reformation in Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited.” On the surface it does seem that Charlie has converted from wine, women, and song to one midday drink, devotion to his daughter, and serious introspection. But recently critics have questioned Charlie’s conversion by pointing to a crucial scene overlooked by earlier commentators. Lorraine Quarries and Duncan Schaeffer arrive at the Peterses’ apartment because Charlie has consciously or unconsciously pointed the way by leaving his address with the bartender at the Ritz. Their appearance and subsequent rowdy behavior so upset Charlie’s sister-in-law that she refuses Charlie the one thing he so desperately wants—the custody of his daughter Honoria. But that may be what Charlie has wanted all along—or so these commentators contend.

First James Harrison (1958), then Roy R. Male (1965), then Robert I. Edenbaum (1968), and most recently David Toor (1973) have made Charlie’s leaving of the Peterses’ address a crux in interpretation, for without it Duncan and Lorraine would never have found him out. But a careful reexamination of both chronology and character may return us to the more sensible, although less psychologically sophisticated, reading of critics like Seymour Gross, who contends that Charlie has indeed reformed, but that in this scurvy world “moral reformation may not be enough.” The vagaries of fate and the perversions of character will forever make the Charlies of this postlapsarian world not tragic, but pathetic figures.

A look at the chronology of the story may exonerate Charlie from the charge of being a conscious or unconscious coconspirator in his ultimate disappointment. In both the original publication in The Saturday Evening Post and in the revised version collected in Taps at Reveille, when Charlie arrives in Paris he gives Alix, the assistant barman at the Ritz, the Peterses’ address, saying, “’If you see Mr. Schaeffer, give him this… It’s my brother-in-law’s address. I haven’t settled on a hotel yet.’” This is his first day in Paris and he ’ has not met Duncan Schaeffer nor has he met Lorraine—an old flame and reveller from his earlier years. The next day, however, he does indeed meet his old friends, together now—Duncan, an old college chum, and Lorraine, on furlough from her stateside husband. They are amazed to find Charlie in Paris, let alone sober, and want to get together later.

“What’s your address?” said Duncan skeptically.

He hesitated, unwilling to give the name of his hotel.

“I’m not settled yet. I’d better call you.” (p. 328)

This is not quite true, for we know Charlie has spent the night at some hotel in Paris, although we are never told specifically where. However, we do know that he does not move during the next two days, so he could have given Duncan and Lorraine an address had he wanted to. But somehow, seeing them, he understands that he must treat them like poison, and so refuses to give any address, even the Peterses’. This refusal is an act of conscious volition, and is passed over by Harrison, Male, Edenbaum, and Toor, who want to believe that Charlie secretly wants Duncan and Lorraine to disturb his in-laws, thereby allowing himself the masochistic pleasure of being denied his daughter Honoria, his honor. For these critics Charlie’s guilt is so great that he must endure still more self-inflicted punishment, still more self-destruction.

The next day, his third in Paris, Charlie receives a message from Lorraine that has been redirected to him by Paul, the head bartender at the Ritz. In the note Lorraine reminds him of the jovial times they had had two years earlier, and invites him to the Ritz bar that afternoon to reminisce. Charlie’s reaction is not at all ambivalent, as is implied in the psychological interpretations of Charlie as schizophrenic. He is not at all like an unreformed drunk who wants to take “just one more for the road.” He knows he must avoid Lorraine. Charlie is a man of considerable control, in fact, a man who takes only one drink a day, in part to reinforce his independence, to reassert control. He knows that Lorraine is more lethal than alcohol, and thus his reaction to her invitation: “He emphatically did not want to see her, and he was glad Alix had not given away his hotel address” (p. 337). Fitzgerald has made it clear: if Charlie had wanted to see Duncan and Lorraine, even subconsciously, he had plenty of opportunity to show lack of restraint. But Charlie is firm. And so, when they do burst into the Peterses’ apartment, Charlie is indeed genuinely astonished, consciously and subconsciously unprepared for their arrival. He instantly realizes that they got the address he left at the Ritz bar, but it was never his intention that they arrive like Mephistophelean agents from the past to collect their due, to deny him the one person he now loves the most.

They why do they come? They come because they are vampires. They come because they need his energy, his metaphorical blood. For they are not really blood-drinking ghouls; rather they are energy leeches who parasitically thrive on the strength of their host. Charlie is more important to them now that he has reformed than he ever was before: “They 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” (p. 329). Duncan and Lorraine are psychic vampires, energy sponges who cannot endure alone. For instance, when they first meet Charlie at Le Grand Vatel they appear, “sudden ghosts out of the past”—not like ghosts, but the ghosts themselves. Hence their desperate attempt to make connections, as it were, with Charlie.

Charlie knows about the kind of aberrant love that can psychologically bleed the donor into pathetic destitution. He knows, even in terms of his affection for his daughter, that too much of the wrong kind of love can build a symbiotic relationship that will enervate both parties. At the beginning of Part IV of the Post text he warns himself of the danger:

The present was the thing—word to do and someone to love. But not to love too much, for Charlie had read in D. H. Lawrence about the injury that a father can do to a daughter or a mother to a son by attaching them too closely.

This is an interesting and critically overlooked aside that reinforces Charlie’s perception of human relationships and especially of the danger of “attachment.” The novel by D. H. Lawrence that he doubtless has in mind is Sons and Lovers. Lawrence has used the metaphor of the vampire to explain a kind of love that drains without replenishing. Charlie knows this is a kind of attachment that he must be wary of with Honoria, and he knows instinctively that this is the kind of attachment that Lorraine offers. It is love as consumption. However, critics have not always agreed. In fact, David Toor claims that “this is just the kind of distortion that Charlie’s mind would drive him to,” and that “he is too warped to see that the only love worth having or getting is one without reservations and limits.” A goodly dose of D. H. Lawrence or of Lawrence’s favorite interpreter of vampiritic love, Edgar Allen Poe, might remedy this sentimental and potentially maudlin view of love.

When Duncan and Lorraine arrive at the Peterses’, Charlie is genuinely shocked. But Marion, Charlie’s overly delicate sister-in-law, reacts with more finely tuned sensitivity. As Charlie introduces his old friends to the Peters, Marion nods, “scarcely speaking. She had drawn back a step toward the fire; her little girl stood beside her, and Marion put an arm about her shoulder” (p. 338). As Marion retreats with her charge to the safety of the fire (vampires are often destroyed by burning and so abhor both the light and heat of flame), Charlie advances, “as if to force them backward down the corridor” (p. 338). Almost on the threshold they parry—"Come and dine,” Lorraine demands. But Charlie is adamant. Finally, backed across the threshold of the apartment, “Still in slow motion, with blurred, angry faces, with uncertain feet,” Duncan and Lorraine “retired along the corridor” (p. 339).

The whole affair has made Marion, this human tuning fork, literally sick, and she has retired. And along with her have gone Charlie’s hopes for Honoria. When Charlie later says to Lincoln, “ ’I wish you’d explain to her I never dreamed these people would come here. I’m just as sore as you are’ “ (p. 340), he is telling the literal, emotional, and psychological truth. It is not, as James Harrison has said, that Charlie the devoted father is trying to cover up for his alter ego, Charlie the philanderer, who wants to be punished. For here is a man who simply loves and wants his daughter and is furious that these leeches, Duncan and Lorraine, have ruined his chances.

He accepts Marion’s decision to postpone her decision with the stoic resignation of one who realizes that in this fallen world he cannot expect justice to be done. He is a man who has come to believe in “character” as a lifestyle, in one drink a day and no more. He goes to the Ritz bar, furious that Lorraine and Duncan could have so sabotaged his desires, and it is here at the bar that we finally understand what Charlie means by “character.” For realizing the peculiarity of fate and the perversity of being human, he concludes that “there wasn’t much he could do” (p. 341). He calls Lincoln to inquire about his chances, is told that Marion wants to “let it slide for six months,” and his response is only, “I see” (p. 341). For indeed, now he does see. He has had his diurnal drink, and if ever there was an appropriate time to go on a bender, it is now. But instead he says to the inquiring waiter, “No, no more… What do I owe you?” His debt is paid; “they couldn’t make him pay forever.” He will return in six months, or twelve months, or eighteen months, until finally Fortune allows him what is rightfully his.

University of Florida

Published in Fitzgerald-Hemingway Annual (1978).