The story opens with Charlie Wales, the protagonist, talking to Alix, the bartender at the Ritz in Paris. Alix is answering Charlie’s questions about people who used to frequent the bar a year and a half ago, but most of them have left Paris—except for a man named Mr. Schaeffer, according to Alix. Since Charlie hasn’t yet decided which hotel to stay in, he writes down his brother-in-law’s address and tells Alix to give it to Mr. Schaeffer if he sees him.
The conversation between Charlie and Alix not only establishes that Paris has mostly emptied of Charlie’s old acquaintances, but also that Charlie has some desire to re-connect with the people he knew during his time there. The narrator doesn’t share any information about Mr. Schaeffer aside from his name, but Charlie’s seemingly innocuous decision to leave his brother-in-law’s address for Mr. Schaeffer will later prove to have disastrous consequences.
Charlie is not disappointed to find Paris is so empty, but he finds “the stillness in the Ritz bar … strange and portentous,” since it used to be such a lively scene. From the moment he got out of the taxi, everything seemed different—the bored doorman, the silent women’s room, the deserted bar. The head barman Charlie had known “in the latter days of the bull market” is out of town, so Charlie is talking instead to Alix. “No, no more,” Charlie says, presumably declining to have another drink. When Charlie explains that he’s “going slow these days,” Alix remarks that Charlie was “going pretty strong a couple of years ago.” Charlie responds that he has “stuck to it” for a year and a half.
When Charlie lived in Paris, the Ritz was the epicenter of his social life there. The desertedness of the Ritz is therefore symbolic, for Charlie, of a much larger change that is taking place: not only that Paris has been deserted, but that the crash of the “bull market” of the 1920s has transformed the world as he knew it. Charlie’s brief exchange with Alix—and his refusal of a second drink—is the first indication in the story that Charlie doesn’t drink the way he used to.
Alix asks Charlie about the “conditions” in America, but Charlie responds that he hasn’t been there for months, since he works in Prague, “representing a couple concerns there.” Charlie then goes back to reminiscing about the old days and asks what has become of someone named Claude Fessenden. Alix explains that Claude doesn’t come here anymore because he ran up a huge bill over the course of a year and then gave the head barman a bad check. “Such a dandy fellow,” Alix recalls, “now he’s all bloated up.”
Alix’s brief story about Claude further establishes that the times have changed, and the story can even be read as an encapsulation of the time more generally. Like so many others, Claude has evidently struggled to adjust to the austerity of the economic depression, and as a result he racked up a tab he couldn’t pay off. Alix speaks about Claude as though he were a sad, distorted version of his former self, bloated from drinking. This aside, however brief, helps set the overall mood of the story, in which Charlie’s experience of loss looms large.
Charlie watches a group of “strident queens”—effeminate men he assumes are gay—sit down in a corner and he muses that “nothing affects them. … Stocks rise and fall, people loaf or work, but they go on forever.” Alix asks how long Charlie is in town and Charlie tells him he’s here for four or five days to see his “little girl.” Alix is surprised that Charlie has a daughter.
The attention Charlie gives to the “strident queens” in the corner provides him with another opportunity to reflect on the volatility of the time by calling attention to the ways that some things seem never to change. Alix’s surprise that Charlie has a daughter suggests that perhaps Charlie’s behavior, as long as Alix has known him, has not been that of someone with the responsibility of a family to look after.
Charlie goes outside to catch a taxi, and directs the driver out of the way so he can see a bit of Paris in the late afternoon light. As he crosses the Seine and feels “the sudden provincial quality of the Left Bank,” Charlie realizes that he never once ate at a cheap restaurant in Paris, and now he wishes he had. In fact, he thinks he “spoiled” the city for himself—that the days came and went until suddenly “two years were gone, and everything was gone,” and finally he himself was gone.
Charlie’s decision to take a detour reveals his nostalgia for the time he spent in Paris—a fondness for old memories which he will later claim not to feel. Despite his nostalgia, his realization that he never ate at a cheap restaurant, and his subsequent reflection that he spoiled the city for himself, imply that he feels that his wealth robbed him of some authenticity of experience.
Charlie is 35 years old and handsome. He furrows his brow and feels a cramp in his belly as he rings his brother-in-law’s doorbell. A maid opens the door and a nine-year-old girl darts out excitedly from behind her, shrieking “Daddy!” This is his daughter, Honoria. Charlie and Honoria embrace warmly, and then she leads him into the home’s salon, where Charlie’s brother-in-law, Lincoln Peters, his sister-in-law, Marion Peters, and their two children are all waiting. When Charlie greets Marion, he’s careful to avoid “either feigned enthusiasm or dislike,” but Marion herself barely tries to conceal her “unalterable distrust” of Charlie. Lincoln and Charlie greet each other “in a friendly way.”
By this point in the story, it’s not yet clear why Charlie doesn’t live with his own daughter, but it is clear from Fitzgerald’s description that Charlie is nervous for the interaction he is about to have. In contrast to Honoria’s uncontainable excitement at seeing her father, Marion’s reception of Charlie is palpably cold, suggesting not only that Charlie’s anxiety stems from his frustrated relationship to Marion, but that there are as-yet unnamed skeletons in this family’s closet.
The room is warm and “comfortably American” with the three children playing nearby, but Charlie can’t relax. He summons confidence from his daughter, who is playing with a doll he brought her. In response to a question from Lincoln about business in Prague, Charlie explains that he’s doing very well, having made a larger income last year than ever before. But he cuts himself off, noticing that his boasting—although it has a “specific purpose”—has begun to bother Lincoln. He changes the subject by complimenting Lincoln’s children.
Charlie reveals that, financially speaking, he has recovered from the market crash of 1929. This is noteworthy not only because it is unusual (for many people it took a decade to recover from the crash), but also because Charlie seems to think that bragging about his wealth will give him some desirable advantage—though in what sense it is not yet clear. Lincoln’s restiveness, and Charlie’s sensitivity to it, suggests that money may be a sore subject for him and his family.
Marion Peters is “a tall woman with worried eyes” who was once quite attractive, though Charlie never thought so. The two had always disliked each other. Marion asks how Charlie is liking being back in Paris and he replies that it’s funny to see so few Americans around. Marion declares her delight at the sudden departure of all the Americans, explaining that while her family has “suffered like everybody,” she’s grateful that everyone has stopped assuming she’s a millionaire, and “on the whole it’s a good deal pleasanter.” Charlie responds that it was nice while it lasted—to have been “a sort of royalty” as an American in Paris during the boom years, “almost infallible, with a sort of magic” around him.
Charlie and Marion clearly feel very differently about the boom years in Paris. Marion barely tries to conceal her distaste for the extravagance of the now-disappeared Americans, whereas Charlie once again grows nostalgic. The brief exchange is evidence of a difference in class between Marion and Charlie, but also in their moral views of extravagance more generally. Oblivious to Marion’s disapproval, Charlie reveals what had been his own hubristic attitude during the boom years by saying he felt “infallible”—a comment that, in light of how awry everything went, carries a certain irony, of which Charlie seems unaware. Again, his nostalgia for the old days casts doubt on the authenticity of his transformation.
Charlie lets it slip that he was at a bar earlier in the afternoon, but immediately realizes his mistake. Marion quips that she thinks Charlie would have “had enough of bars,” and he explains that he has “one drink every afternoon, and no more.” When Lincoln offers Charlie a cocktail, Charlie repeats that he’s already had his one drink. Marion, with all the coldness of her dislike for Charlie evident in her voice, says she hopes he sticks to it.
Marion’s response to Charlie’s admission that he had been at the bar is the first clear indication that her distrust of him stems from his drinking. His response—that he only has one drink a day—is understandably not reassuring to Marion. Charlie’s habit of having one drink a day, while moderate enough, continues throughout the story to raise the question of whether he will relapse into his old patterns of alcohol abuse.
Charlie reacts to Marion’s harsh treatment simply by smiling. He can’t afford to react temperamentally—he came here to accomplish something, and Marion’s aggression toward him gives him an upper hand. He will wait for one of the Peters to raise the subject they know he came to Paris to discuss.
Although Fitzgerald doesn’t yet reveal Charlie’s reasons for coming to Paris—or what he needs to discuss with the Peters—he makes it clear that Charlie feels he doesn’t yet have the upper hand, and must therefore be careful not to lose control of the situation (or of himself). Here, as in other exchanges between Marion and Charlie, maintaining composure is equated with gaining control over the situation, while behaving immoderately reveals a lack of control.
At dinner, Charlie wonders to himself whether Honoria is more similar to him or her mother, Helen. He hopes she does not combine whatever qualities had led him and Helen to disaster. He feels protective of her and thinks he knows “what to do for her.” He wishes he could go back in time and trust in character as the “eternally valuable element,” reflecting that everything else seems to wear out.
Without saying much about what ended his marriage, Charlie reveals that it ended in “disaster.” He seems to associate the idea of character not only with moral strength, but also with family, since he jumps from thinking about his daughter to feeling regretful of his underestimation of the value of character in the past. The phrase “eternally valuable” implies a contrast between character and money, which, as the crash of 1929 proved, can lose its value overnight. Therefore, this reflection indicates a shift in Charlie’s values, from valuing money to valuing character and family.
After dinner, Charlie leaves the Peters’ home, eager to wander the streets of Paris at night “with clearer and more judicious eyes than those of other days.” He goes to see Josephine Baker perform, then walks toward Montmartre to stroll past the cabarets and the bars he used to frequent. He passes one bar where he remembers spending so much time and money, and pops his head into another “ancient rendezvous” only to withdraw immediately—the club was empty, and the man at the door was frighteningly desperate to attract clientele. Other bars have disappeared completely, or otherwise become tourist traps. “You have to be damn drunk,” Charlie thinks to himself.
Charlie seems to think he has transformed enough in the span of a year and a half that his eyes are significantly wiser now, and yet he leaves dinner to visit the neighborhood where he used to do all his drinking and partying, begging the question of whether he has truly changed, or is only deluding himself. It is unclear whether the bars and clubs he used to love would seem so unappealing to him now if they had not all been deserted when the market crashed. In any case, he attributes his ability to enjoy such a grim scene to his drunkenness, suggesting that he sees alcohol as a fuel for immoderate and depraved behavior.
What Charlie once saw as the “effort and ingenuity” of Montmartre, he now sees as childish “catering to vice and waste.” He thinks that he now understands the meaning of the word dissipate: “to make nothing out of something.” Looking back on his days of drinking and squandering wild sums of money in this neighborhood, he regrets that he allowed his life to get so wildly out of control that his child was taken away from him and his wife “escaped to a grave in Vermont.” A woman speaks to him on the street and he buys her coffee and eggs, gives her 20 francs, and takes a taxi home.
Charlie reveals that his wife is now dead and his daughter was taken from his custody, adding a greater sense of gravity to his reminiscences about the years he spent drinking in Paris. It is now clear that he sees the loss of his wife and daughter as being related to his recklessness and drinking—though it’s not yet clear what occurred or how. When Charlie gives the woman on the street 20 francs (roughly equivalent to ten dollars in today’s money) the act of generosity seems to betray some feeling of guilt on his part—as if he feels he has a debt to pay for the destruction he has caused.