Lincoln and Marion Peters are waiting anxiously in the salon of their home for Charlie to ask the question he came to Paris to ask. Lincoln’s nervousness suggests he and Marion have already been discussing the matter. Charlie launches right into it, explaining that he’s “awfully anxious to have a home” with Honoria in it. He says that although he was “acting badly” three years ago, “things have changed now,” and he hasn’t had more than a single drink each day for over a year. He says that he takes his one drink “deliberately, so that the idea of alcohol won’t get too big” in his imagination. Charlie asks Marion and Lincoln if they understand, and Marion says “no,” but Lincoln says that he does.
Charlie reveals that he has come to Paris to convince Marion and Lincoln Peters to allow him to take Honoria back to Prague with him, and the debate that ensues very quickly turns to the subject of his drinking habit. Charlie’s rationale for having one drink a day seems to be that it will keep him from craving alcohol too strongly and having a catastrophic relapse as a result, but the very suggestion that he might have to worry about a relapse seems to cause Marion concern—and indeed, it raises real questions about the permanence of Charlie’s supposed transformation.
Charlie carries on by saying that he “couldn’t afford to drink” in his position, since he has business matters to attend to, and his sister is coming from Burlington to keep house, and he wants Honoria. He reminds Marion and Lincoln that even when he and Helen were not getting along, they didn’t let it influence Honoria. Then he asks them what they think of his request. He knows that he will have to “take a beating,” but he is determined to control his temper, since he sees it as his only chance of winning.
Charlie anticipates an unfriendly response from Marion, but he is prepared to take the position of humility rather than righteousness if it means getting what he wants. It’s one of several moments in the story in which he seems prepared to pay for his past transgressions in order to earn redemption, but it is unclear whether he would be able to “take a beating” in this way if he didn’t feel it served his purposes (which in turn begs the question of whether he is truly repentant).
Lincoln begins by saying that he and Marion have been discussing the matter since they received Charlie’s letter a month ago. He goes on to say that they are glad to have Honoria in their home, but then Marion interjects, asking Charlie how long he’s going to remain sober. Charlie says he hopes permanently, and explains that he never started drinking heavily until he quit his job and moved to Paris with nothing to do, at which point he and Helen — but Marion interjects again, telling Charlie to leave Helen out of it, and that she can’t bear to hear him talk about her “like that.” Charlie thinks to himself that he was never even sure that the sisters liked each other very much in life. He says that his drinking lasted a year and a half, from the time he moved to Paris to the time he collapsed.
Marion makes it clear that Charlie’s sobriety is the primary concern for her in determining his trustworthiness. Although Marion tells Charlie to leave Helen out of the issue, Charlie suspects that she is actually just looking for any opportunity to act aggressively toward him. However, Marion silences Charlie just as it seems he is about to suggest that Helen, too, had been a heavy drinker. Charlie’s revelation that he “collapsed”—presumably as a result of his drinking—gives more detail about the “disaster” that was the end of his marriage.
Marion states that her duty is to Helen, and that ever since the night Charlie “did that terrible thing,” he hasn’t existed for her. When Helen was dying, she asked Marion to take care of Honoria. Marion holds it against Charlie that at that time he had been in a sanitarium. She says she will never forget the morning Helen came to her door soaking wet, having been locked out by Charlie. Marion’s mention of the evening angers Charlie, and he begins to explain, but Marion cuts him off, saying she doesn’t feel up for “going over that again.”
A clearer picture is beginning to emerge of why Marion harbors such an intense resentment of Charlie. Not only does she seem to think that Charlie mistreated her sister, but she also resents him for being unable to care for his dying wife or his own daughter because he was recovering from an alcoholism-related collapse. Charlie’s instinct to defend himself seems natural, but is perhaps also an indication that he has yet to accept responsibility for his actions.
Lincoln chimes in to suggest that the real question is whether Marion has enough confidence in Charlie to give him legal guardianship of Honoria. Charlie says he doesn’t blame Marion, but that she can have total confidence in him—and that he’s afraid if he waits too much longer he’ll have lost “Honoria’s childhood” and his “chance for a home.” Marion asks why he didn’t think of all this before. Charlie says that he did, but at the time he agreed to let Marion take care of Honoria he was broke and flat on his back in the sanitarium, willing to do anything he thought might make Helen happy. But now, he says, he’s behaving “damn well.”
Here, Charlie equates his desire for “a home” with his fear of missing out on Honoria’s childhood, showing that for him, conceptions of home and family are inextricably connected. Lincoln, as elsewhere in the story, plays the role of an intermediary in the conflict between Charlie and Marion by trying to steer the conversation toward what really matters: the question of whether Charlie has changed.
Marion takes issue with Charlie’s use of the word “damn,” which startles Charlie. He realizes the extent of Marion’s dislike for him, and grows concerned about the idea of leaving Honoria in the care of someone so hostile toward him. But when Lincoln points out that Marion has never before taken issue with anyone’s use of the word “damn,” Charlie feels he has won a point. He takes the opportunity to add that he’s now able to give Honoria “certain advantages.” He intends to bring a French governess back to Prague with him, and he has a lease on a new apartment. But he stops himself, realizing that he’s flaunting his wealth in front of people with an income half the size of his.
Here, Charlie uses his wealth to gain the upper hand in the argument over who will be Honoria’s guardian. This raises a moral question about whether Charlie is using the power his money gives him to buy whatever he wants—in this case, his daughter—just as he has in the past. Charlie’s complicated relationship to his own wealth is part of what makes him a morally ambiguous character: although he claims to no longer be the wealthy playboy he once was, he continues to wield his wealth as a source of power.
Marion admits that Charlie can give Honoria “more luxuries,” recalling that while Charlie and Helen were “throwing away money,” she and Lincoln were “watching every ten francs.” She supposes Charlie will start “doing it again,” but Charlie denies it, saying he worked hard for ten years before he got lucky enough in the markets to be able to quit working, but he’s learned his lesson. In a moment of tense silence, Charlie feels a desire to have a drink for the first time in a year, but he feels certain now that Lincoln wants him to take Honoria.
Marion isn’t specific about what she means when she suggests that because Charlie has money he will start “doing it again.” She may be referring to the way he threw away money in the past, or to his drinking, but the ambiguity of her statement creates an equivalence between these different forms of immoderation. In this way, Marion acts as a moral authority in the story, seeming to believe that all forms of immoderation lead to ruin.
Marion suddenly shudders. She can see that Charlie has his “feet planted on the earth now,” but she has harbored a prejudice against him for a long time, thinking him responsible for her sister’s unhappiness. The night Helen was locked out, her prejudice turned to hatred—in a moment when the adverse circumstances of her own life made it necessary for her to believe in “tangible villainy and a tangible villain.” She exclaims that she can’t help what she thinks, and that Charlie will have to sort out with his conscience to what extent he is responsible for his wife’s death.
Marion’s hatred for Charlie is founded as much in his actions as it is in her own need to have something to despise. Fitzgerald is perhaps suggesting that Marion’s need for “tangible villainy” arose in response to the intangible villainy that led to the Great Depression, and that Charlie was a fitting target for her anger because of his wealth and immoderation. In light of this, it is difficult to know how much weight to give to Marion’s very serious accusation that Charlie is in some way responsible for Helen’s death.
An “electric current of agony” surges through Charlie, but he controls himself. Lincoln asserts that he never thought Charlie was responsible for Helen’s death, and Charlie states that Helen died of heart trouble. Marion repeats Charlie’s words as though “the phrase had another meaning for her.” In the moments after her outburst, it becomes clear to everyone in the room that Charlie has gained control over the situation. Marion tells Charlie he can do what he likes, but that if it were her child she’d “rather see her—” but Marion manages to stop herself, and excuses herself from the room.
Marion’s emotional outburst crosses a line, making Charlie seem like the rational one by comparison. But her suggestion that there may have been some relationship between the emotional distress Charlie caused Helen and her death from heart trouble is not entirely senseless, raising the question of whether Charlie may, in some way, have been responsible for his wife’s death.
Lincoln explains that Marion has had a hard day, as if apologizing on her behalf. He says that Marion can see now that Charlie can provide for Honoria, so they won’t stand in his way. Charlie leaves.
By concluding the conversation in terms of what Charlie can provide for Honoria, Lincoln settles the matter as though it were a purely financial one—using terms that Charlie is responsible for introducing. Thus, Charlie’s wealth again appears as a variable in his effort to rebuild his family, despite money having been the impetus of his family’s destruction. Nonetheless, Charlie seems to have gotten the answer he came for.
On the street, Charlie is still shaking. The image of Helen haunts him. On the night that he locked her out, they had gotten into a long quarrel. There had been “a scene at the Florida,” then Helen had kissed a young man named Webb at a table, and “after that there was what she had hysterically said.” Charlie had gone home alone, and angrily turned the key in the lock—but, unbeknownst to him, Helen had arrived by herself an hour later, and a snowstorm had begun in which she wandered around in her slippers, “too confused to find a taxi.” Afterwards, Helen had come down with pneumonia and barely survived. It had been the beginning of the end, and Marion had never forgotten.
Charlie’s recollection of the evening he locked Helen out provides important insight into their life together. Specifically, it shows that—at least in his version of the events—Helen had been equally out of control, and, it seems, also a heavy drinker. However, Charlie’s recollection is one-sided and therefore far from entirely reliable, which is underscored by his use of words like “hysterical.” The revelation that Helen nearly died of pneumonia gives teeth to Marion’s accusation that Charlie was partly responsible for his wife’s death of “heart trouble.” This ambiguity is central to Charlie’s moral complexity as a character—as it is not clear to what extent he is, or feels, culpable.
In a half-asleep state in his hotel room, Charlie imagines himself talking to Helen. She says she wants Honoria to be with him, and that she’s glad he’s doing better. She’s wearing a white dress and being very friendly, but she’s on a swing that goes faster and faster until Charlie can’t hear what she’s saying anymore.
The swing in Charlie’s dream of Helen is a symbol of his lost connection with her. As she swings faster and faster, their conversation begins to blur, as if his memory of her is slipping away. However, her words for him are kind rather than admonishing, suggesting that he may not feel that he bears responsibility for bringing about her death.