“Babylon Revisited” takes place one year after the stock market crash of 1929, in the early years of the Great Depression. Charlie Wales revisits Paris, the city where he and his wife lived lavishly during the height of the market boom of the 1920s, only to find that the bars and hotels he once frequented are all but deserted, “the big party” having come to a crashing halt. Fitzgerald portrays the relative austerity of life in Paris in 1930 as a kind of “hangover”—the inevitable consequence of the excess and overindulgence of the roaring 20s. Charlie’s lonely life, with his wife dead and his daughter in the custody of his in-laws, is also a hangover from his recklessness during the boom, and Fitzgerald positions Charlie’s unfulfilled longing for family as a parallel austerity to the economic conditions of the ‘30s, an emotional debt racked up in times of indulgence that has yet to be repaid.
Lincoln and Marion Peters (Charlie’s in-laws), while not poor, provide a point of reference to help readers understand Charlie’s wealth. In the ‘20s, they were barely managing to make ends meet while Charlie and his wife Helen were off gallivanting around Paris and beyond. And yet, Lincoln and Marion were the ones entrusted with the care of Charlie and Helen’s daughter Honoria when Helen died and Charlie was “flat on his back” in a sanatorium. Therefore, they were not only were witnesses to the excess of Charlie’s lifestyle during the boom years, when they themselves had little by comparison, but they also bear the weight of the consequences of Charlie’s foolishness and immoderation, as they are left to look after his child. Although Marion attributes her mistrust of Charlie to his drinking and his poor treatment of her sister, Fitzgerald implies that part of her resentment may be related to class—and more specifically to the arrogance, entitlement, and superiority that Charlie feels because of his wealth. Lincoln tells Charlie directly at one point that Marion “felt there was some kind of injustice to it”—referring to Charlie “not even working toward the end, and getting richer and richer.”
Although Charlie understands that wealth made him blind to the sources of real value in his life, he still must use his money as a source of power. When Charlie and Lincoln Peters discuss who will care for Honoria, they do so as though it were chiefly a financial matter. At the Peters family’s home, Charlie makes a point of boasting about how well business is going for him in Prague, and he does so “for a specific purpose”: to demonstrate that he’s better-equipped than the Peters family to provide for Honoria. However, Charlie notices that his boasting stirs a “faint restiveness” in Lincoln’s eyes, suggesting not only that money is a sensitive issue for the Peters family, but that perhaps they also associate Charlie’s wealth with his immoderate behavior. Therefore, Charlie must strike a delicate balance: he is dependent on his wealth to prove his competence as a caretaker relative to the Peters family, but he must be careful not to give the impression that he’s fated to repeat old mistakes.
Charlie’s reliance on money as a substitute for family is nowhere more evident than in his relationship with his daughter. Charlie and Honoria want to live together, so it’s painful for both of them that their relationship seems limited to him giving her toys. When Charlie takes Honoria out to lunch, he tells her he’s going to bring her to a toy store and buy her anything she wants, but Honoria responds that she doesn’t want to go to the toy store, since she already has a lot of things at home. It’s as though she is weary of accepting substitutes for her father’s presence and affection. At the very end of the story, after Marion has changed her mind about allowing Charlie to take Honoria back to Prague, Charlie feels angry that the only thing he can think to do to feel close to Honoria is to send her “a lot of things” (meaning, presumably, toys). This demonstrates Charlie’s main insight of the story: that while he “lost a lot in the crash,” he lost everything of real value to him—his family—in the boom years through his immoderate behavior.
Ultimately, Charlie uses his wealth to gain the upper hand in the argument over who will be Honoria’s guardian, and in doing so he manages to avoid fully addressing Marion’s concern that he has not changed. 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 did in the past. Class, then, is part of what makes Charlie 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.
Wealth and Poverty ThemeTracker
Wealth and Poverty Quotes in Babylon Revisited
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.
"First, we're going to that toy store in the Rue Saint-Honoré and buy you anything you like. And then we're going to the vaudeville at the Empire."
She hesitated. "I like it about the vaudeville, but not the toy store."
"Well, you brought me this doll." She had it with her. "And I've got lots of things. And we're not rich any more, are we?"
"We never were. But today you are to have anything you want."
"All right," she agreed resignedly.
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.
"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?"