In “Babylon Revisited,” Charlie Wales reconciles himself to his past by revisiting the city where his life fell apart. As Charlie sees it, his return is the culmination of a long process of personal transformation, as it provides an opportunity for him to not only reflect on how much he has changed since leaving Paris, but also to redeem himself in the eyes of his family. However, Fitzgerald leaves some ambiguity around the question of whether Charlie has truly changed—and if he has, whether that change will be lasting. Charlie confronts various ghosts from his past in Paris—running into old friends and visiting the places he once spent so much time and money—all of which threaten to lure him into old patterns of self-destructive behavior and show that he hasn’t really changed. This pattern persists until the end of the story, and although Charlie remains resolute in the face of many temptations, Fitzgerald seems to suggest that Charlie’s transformation is still, and will perhaps always be, precarious.
The primary transformation that Charlie has undergone is that he has been sober for a year and a half, presumably since his time at a sanatorium following his “collapse” in 1929. However, Charlie takes one drink every afternoon, and he does so deliberately, “so that the idea of alcohol won’t get too big” in his imagination. This habit shows that personal transformation is fragile—Charlie’s daily drink creates an ambiguity about whether his transformation is permanent, signaling that perhaps Charlie will fall again into old patterns, thereby ruining the new life to which he seems so committed.
Fitzgerald further emphasizes the precariousness of Charlie’s transformation by introducing temptation in the form of reminders of his old life. While out to lunch with Honoria (who embodies the upright future Charlie desires), Charlie runs into two former friends from his time in Paris years ago. They are Duncan Schaeffer and Lorraine Quarrles, “ghosts out of the past” who seem to be in denial that the glory days of the ‘20s are over. Although Charlie describes the encounter as an unwelcome one, and remarks that “his own rhythm was different now,” he admits that he still feels a “passionate, provocative attraction” to Lorraine, which symbolizes that he is still irrationally drawn to his old life, despite his new commitments. After Charlie seems to have won permission from Marion Peters to take his daughter back to Prague with him, he receives a flirtatious letter at his hotel from Lorraine, who requests that they meet. The letter reads as both a temptation from days past and a threat to Charlie’s success in maintaining Marion’s trust, but he reflects that the once-attractive Lorraine now seems “trite, blurred, worn away,” and his thoughts drift instead to Honoria and the future. Charlie’s steadfastness in the face of his old vices proves, it seems, that he’s impervious to the temptations of the old days, and that his significant transformation is lasting and real.
Though Fitzgerald allows readers to glimpse Charlie’s resolve, Marion is still skeptical that he has changed enough to merit regaining custody of Honoria. This mistrust is not simply a recognition that his present behavior might not be the whole truth—it’s a deeply rooted antipathy, which shows that transformation is not simply a matter of changing behavior, but also of earning redemption for past mistakes. For Marion, Charlie’s apparent transformation is less meaningful in light of Charlie’s prior behavior to Helen (Charlie’s wife and Marion’s sister). Marion sees Charlie as having been responsible in some way for Helen’s death, but Charlie makes a compelling case in his favor, arguing that he has undergone a transformation and that he plans to remain sober. Marion reluctantly cedes control, granting Charlie permission to take Honoria back to Prague. This victory, for Charlie, is a symbolic recognition that Marion—his harshest critic—really believes he has changed.
However, when Duncan Schaeffer and Lorraine Quarrles arrive, uninvited and drunk, at the Peters’s family home, it upsets Marion enough that she changes her mind about allowing Charlie to take charge of Honoria. The reversal seems unjust, on the one hand, because Charlie is not entirely to blame for Duncan and Lorraine’s intrusion, despite having left the Peters’ address with the barman at the Ritz so that Duncan would be able to find him there. On the other hand, Duncan and Lorraine’s sudden appearance—and its disastrous consequences for Charlie—are a reminder of the irrepressible and un-erasable nature of the past. Even if Charlie truly has changed, Fitzgerald seems to say, there is still a price to be paid. As the story ends, Charlie vows to come back to Paris some day, reasoning that the Peters family “couldn’t make him pay forever.” Perhaps the truest testament to Charlie’s transformation is that, rather than placing blame on Marion and acting the victim, he seems to understand that he has caused enough pain that he may not be able to win redemption—or escape his past—by changing his behavior alone.
Transformation and Redemption ThemeTracker
Transformation and Redemption 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.
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.
"Daddy, I want to come and live with you," she said suddenly.
His heart leaped; he had wanted it to come like this.
"Aren't you perfectly happy?"
"Yes, but I love you better than anybody. And you love me better than anybody, don't you, now that mummy's dead?"
"Of course I do. But you won't always like me best, honey. You'll grow up and meet somebody your own age and go marry him and forget you ever had a daddy."
"Yes, that's true," she agreed tranquilly.
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.”
"I don't blame Marion," Charlie said slowly, "but I think she can have entire confidence in me. I had a good record up to three years ago. Of course, it's within human possibilities I might go wrong any time. But if we wait much longer I'll lose Honoria's childhood and my chance for a home." He shook his head, "I'll simply lose her, don't you see?"
Marion shuddered suddenly; part of her saw that Charlie's feet were planted on the earth now, and her own maternal feeling recognized the naturalness of his desire; but she had lived for a long time with a prejudice—a prejudice founded on a curious disbelief in her sister's happiness, and which, in the shock of one terrible night, had turned to hatred for him. It had all happened at a point in her life where the discouragement of ill health and adverse circumstances made it necessary for her to believe in tangible villainy and a tangible villain.
"I can't help what I think!" she cried out suddenly. "How much you were responsible for Helen's death, I don't know. It's something you'll have to square with your own conscience."
"There's another thing." Lincoln hesitated. "While you and Helen were tearing around Europe throwing money away, we were just getting along. I didn't touch any of the prosperity because I never got ahead enough to carry anything but my insurance. I think Marion felt there was some kind of injustice in it—you not even working toward the end, and getting richer and richer."
"It went just as quick as it came," said Charlie.
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.
"I heard that you lost a lot in the crash."
"I did," and he added grimly, "but I lost everything I wanted in the boom."
"Something like that."
There wasn't much he could do now except send Honoria some things; he would send her a lot of things tomorrow. He thought rather angrily that this was just money—he had given so many people money. . . .
"No, no more," he said to another waiter. "What do I owe you?"