In “Babylon Revisited,” Charlie’s life is in shambles as a direct consequence of his abuse of alcohol. Although the story deals directly with other forms of immoderation and vice—including greed and promiscuity—Fitzgerald uses the story of Charlie’s struggle with alcoholism to encapsulate his moral point about immoderate behavior inevitably leading to collapse. In this way, Charlie’s story echoes the economic cycle of “boom and bust” that led to the Great Depression, which serves as the story’s backdrop.
During the late ‘20s, when Charlie lived in Paris with his wife, Helen, and his daughter, Honoria, he drank heavily, which regularly led him to behave irresponsibly. Reflecting on a late-night drunken escapade in which he stole a tricycle with Lorraine Quarrles, Charlie confesses that the incident was only “one of many” in which he had behaved so recklessly. Charlie identifies the night he drunkenly locked his wife out of their home as his gravest mistake and “the beginning of the end” of their marriage. Moreover, the incident implicates Charlie in Helen’s eventual death, since she contracted pneumonia that night and later died of “heart trouble.” Finally, Charlie forfeits guardianship of his daughter while he is “flat on his back” in a sanitarium recovering from his alcohol-induced collapse. Thus, Charlie’s immoderate use of alcohol was instrumental in destroying his family, and is therefore also responsible for the suffering he continues to experience in “Babylon Revisited.” Importantly, Charlie’s recklessness was not limited to his use of alcohol. He also exhibited hubris—or excessive self-confidence—in the boom years of the ‘20s, even admitting at one point that he felt like “a sort of royalty, almost infallible.”
Despite his old habits, Charlie seems to have reformed his behavior. Each time he visits the bar at the Ritz—the epicenter of his old life in Paris—he sticks to his new habit of having just one drink every day, as he does throughout the story. Even after learning the devastating news that Marion has changed her mind about allowing him to take Honoria, Charlie refuses the bartender’s offer of another drink, thereby showing that he is not going to cope with his loss in his old ways. His moderation in drinking has transformed his perspective. Strolling the streets of Montmartre and surveying the now-empty bars and clubs with sober eyes for the first time, Charlie thinks to himself, “you have to be damn drunk” to enjoy any of it. His newfound sobriety gives him a new perspective not only on Paris, but also on his past self. When he recalls the night he and Lorraine stole the tricycle, he asks himself “how many weeks or months of dissipation to arrive at that condition of utter irresponsibility?”
Through Fitzgerald’s careful description, the irresponsibility of Charlie’s drinking habit is made to closely parallel the reckless immoderation of the bull market that led to the crash in 1929 (and the Great Depression of the ‘30s). When defending himself against Marion’s accusations that no one can reasonably rely on Charlie to remain sober, Charlie retorts that his drinking only lasted about a year and a half: “from the time we came over until I—collapsed.” Within the timeline of the story, this places Charlie’s collapse from alcoholism at the same time as the market crash. Therefore, Charlie’s personal storyline parallels the broader economic arc of the era—a time of excessive greed and irresponsibility followed by a collapse. This parallel further illustrates the overarching moral point that Fitzgerald seems to be making in this story against excessive or immoderate behavior: that excess is inevitably linked to collapse.
Fitzgerald himself struggled with alcoholism for his entire adult life and drank himself to death at the early age of 44. It is worth noting that in “Babylon Revisited,” Fitzgerald does not treat addiction the way contemporary medicine understands addiction (as a disease that makes addicts deserving of help rather than condemnation). Instead, he treats addiction in the more old-fashioned sense, as a moral failing and a symptom of weak character. Thus, for Fitzgerald, alcohol is a fitting parallel to the excesses of the bull market, which were brought about by immoral and uncontrolled greed. But this story came in the middle of Fitzgerald’s life, before his own story of alcoholism was completed, and it perhaps reflects an undue optimism about a person’s ability to beat addiction through moral reform. Fitzgerald himself tried to quit many times and failed, which complicates the somewhat easy moralism of Fitzgerald using alcohol to embody unchecked vice.
Alcohol, Immoderation, and Collapse ThemeTracker
Alcohol, Immoderation, and Collapse Quotes in Babylon Revisited
“My income last year was bigger than it was when I had money. You see, the Czechs—”
His boasting was for a specific purpose; but after a moment, seeing a faint restiveness in Lincoln’s eyes, he changed the subject:
“Those are fine children of yours, well brought up, good manners.”
A great wave of protectiveness went over him. He thought he knew what to do for her. He believed in character; he wanted to jump back a whole generation and trust in character again as the eternally valuable element. Everything wore out.
He remembered thousand-franc notes given to an orchestra for playing a single number, hundred-franc notes tossed to a doorman for calling a cab.
But it hadn't been given for nothing.
It had been given, even the most wildly squandered sum, as an offering to destiny that he might not remember the things most worth remembering, the things that now he would always remember—his child taken from his control, his wife escaped to a grave in Vermont.
Somehow, an unwelcome encounter. 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.
As I told you, I haven't had more than a drink a day for over a year, and I take that drink deliberately, so that the idea of alcohol won't get too big in my imagination. You see the idea?"
"No," said Marion succinctly.
"It's a sort of stunt I set myself. It keeps the matter in proportion."
"I get you," said Lincoln. "You don't want to admit it's got any attraction for you."
"Something like that. Sometimes I forget and don't take it. But I try to take it.”
His first feeling was one of awe that he had actually, in his mature years, stolen a tricycle and pedaled Lorraine all over the Étoile between the small hours and dawn. In retrospect it was a nightmare. Locking out Helen didn't fit in with any other act of his life, but the tricycle incident did--it was one of many. How many weeks or months of dissipation to arrive at that condition of utter irresponsibility?
He tried to picture how Lorraine had appeared to him then—very attractive; Helen was unhappy about it, though she said nothing. Yesterday, in the restaurant, Lorraine had seemed trite, blurred, worn away. He emphatically did not want to see her, and he was glad Alix had not given away his hotel address. It was a relief to think, instead, of Honoria, to think of Sundays spent with her and of saying good morning to her and of knowing she was there in his house at night, drawing her breath in the darkness.