Since all writers and artists are heavilyinfluenced by the society around them, different eras in history have differentliterary periods; Modernism is one of those periods.
“Modernism is defined asextending from 1880 to 1945, giving “priority to the prewar years” or “postwar years”while others claim that it extends from 1890 to 1945 until the end of theSecond World War” (Drobot, 2017). Either one of those given time periods showsthat Modernist literature was greatly influenced by war; it was a sadder timethan the Romantic period and Victorian periods that came before. While Romanticwriters wrote about nature, Modernist wrote about the more negative aspects ofcivilization, such as isolation and not being able to communicate with others. Bothof those themes of Modernism were used by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his tale Babylon Revisited, which was publishedin 1931. By analyzing the economy of the time period, Fitzgerald’s biographyand the different characters in BabylonRevisited, we can see the different aspects of isolation and the inabilityto communicate come into play and see how the elements relate to what was goingon in the war-influenced society, as well as provide lessons to the readers.
First,it is important to note that modern works showed more of the darker sides ofsociety – such as addiction, money problems, and families being torn apart. Theeconomy of that time period is a segment of the short story. “… Paul, themanager, and Charles Wales reflect on the changes wrought by the stock marketcrash of 1929 and the economic depression that followed” (Eby, 1995). Thatcrash is a real-life event, and Fitzgerald would have known how it impactedpeople. It is an example of how the Modernists drew from the negative of worldaround them as they wrote. Unlike the Romantics, they focused on what can beseen as harsh realities. Fitzgerald tookit as an opportunity to show how people see events in different lights sincethey are impacted differently.
“Paul conceives the crash and the depressionpurely in economic terms, while Charles is haunted by the dissipated lifestyleof the boom years that ended with his wife’s death, his daughter Honoria’sadoption by his sister-in-law, and his own stint in a sanitarium foralcoholics” (Eby, 1995). Even when millions of people are impacted by a majorcrisis, they are still impacted in different ways due to their own experiencesand choices. That explains this passage that took place in the Ritz bar: “It’sa great change,” he said sadly. “We do about half the business wedid. So many fellows I hear about back in the States lost everything, maybe notin the first crash, but then in the second.
Your friend George Hardt lost everycent, I hear. Are you back in the States?””No,I’m in business in Prague.””Iheard that you lost a lot in the crash.
“”Idid,” and he added grimly, “but I lost everything I wanted in theboom.””Sellingshort.””Somethinglike that” (Fitzgerald, 1931).
Charles and Paul meant drastically differentthings in regard to “selling short.” Paul meant in regard to stocks and othersuch financial aspects. Charles meant that he lost his family; money no longerwas what he wanted now that it was all he had. By “selling short,” he meantthat his alcoholism had cost him everything he wanted.
That parallel can alsobe seen in Fitzgerald’s life. Tofully understand the elements of BabylonRevisited, it is essential to examine F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life becauseCharlie Wales, one of the main characters of the tale, can be compared toFitzgerald, especially in regard to a troublesome marriage and addiction.
“Alreadyin that summer of 1923, the antics of Scott and Zelda his wife werenotorious—often entertaining, sometimes embarrassing, intermittently worse.Both were inclined to melodramatic excesses” (Rell, 2015). That can easily becompared to the marriage of his fictional characters, Charles and Helen.
“Scottand Zelda seemed to compete at theatrical self-display. Zelda performedstrip-tease dances at parties” (Rell, 2015). On the night Helen was locked out,she had behaved inappropriately at a party; both her and Charles were drunk,which is part of what led to her death. Charles and Helen had a love of alcoholthat often negatively influenced the love they had for each other, which is thesame as Fitzgerald’s reality; he died at 44 because of alcoholism. “Of course,they fought frequently, “terrible 4-day rows,” Scott reported, “that alwaysstart with a drinking party but we’re still enormously in love.” Fitzgeraldcalled himself an alcoholic and Charles is called one by his sister-in-law, Marion.Though he says he is now recovered, by only drinking one a day so it does notbecome too large and overwhelming in his mind, alcohol is still harming hislife. The economy also affected his life, just like it did the life of thewriter who invented him.
AModernist theme in this tale is isolation, both forced and chosen. Charleslearns that the reckless past actions have changed the city for him. “I spoiledthis city for myself. I didn’t realize it, but the days came along one afteranother, and then two years were gone, and everything was gone, and I was gone””(Fitzgerald, 1931). He also is tormented by the fact that his past has causedhim to become isolated from his wife and daughter – whom he deeply loved. Itwas only as time passed that he realized what he once had, which is very much apart of human nature. Now, he’d do and give anything to just have them back; noamount of money was worth losing Helen and Honoria. Before the stock marketcrash, people with money saw themselves as having everything.
Afterwards, theysaw what was truly important. “It had been given, even the most wildlysquandered sum, as an offering to destiny that he might not remember the thingsmost worth remembering, the things that now he would always remember—his childtaken from his control, his wife escaped to a grave in Vermont” (Fitzgerald,1931). The use of “escaped” in that last sentence is important.
While heescaped his demons through getting help, she escaped through death. She escapeda life and a marriage that was disastrous. Charles sought help because of whathappened to Helen. It is probable that if she’d never been locked out in thesnow and died as a cause that they would have stayed in that lifestyle, noknowing how to communicate with one another. AnotherModernist theme implemented by Fitzgerald is the inability to communicate withothers in society.
This is first shown when Charles is talking to hisbrother-in-law. “His boasting was fora specific purpose; but after a moment, seeing a faint restiveness in Lincoln’seye, he changed the subject” (Fitzgerald, 1931). Charles is trying to start offto explain how his life has become stabilized to the point he feels he canproperly care for Honoria. It would seem that money is not something he couldtalk to Lincoln about, just like the past and Helen are not topics he can talkto Marion about. “”You know I never did drink heavily until I gave up businessand came over here with nothing to do. Then Helen and I began to run aroundwith—”… “Please leave Helen out of it. I can’t bear to hear you talk about herlike that” (Fitzgerald, 1931). It is ironic for her to say since she and hersister did not ever get along; there was quite a bit of jealousy.
However, italso seems that she feels guilty and does not want to speak or hear ill of hersister now; she is still trapped by the past, making it hard for her to talk toCharles. That is also shown in the passage that says, “This was more difficultthan he expected; he wanted to launch out into a long expostulation andexplanation, but he only said: “The night I locked her out—” and sheinterrupted, “I don’t feel up to going over that again” (Fitzgerald, 1931). Marionwants to bring up her sister when it is convenient to her but does not want tohear his side of events; she is still bitter about what happened. She does notwant to forgive him since that would mean forgiving herself as well. Lack tocommunication is later seen in the passage stating, “… I’m functioning, I’mbehaving damn well, so far as—”… “Please don’t swear at me,” Marion said….
Lincoln realized the absurdity of Marion’s remark and asked her lightly sincewhen she had objected to the word “damn.”” (Fitzgerald, 1931). Instead ofMarion saying why she did not want to have the conversation, she pretended tobe against his language. She could not be honest, making Charles and the readerneed to think deeper about what she was saying. Itis essential for readers to think deeper about what characters are saying asopposed to taking the words at face value. Critical thinking not only shedsmore light on the tale, but also on the time period. In this case, Marion andCharles can both be examples of everyday in people in the society after thestock market crash and negative effects of war impacted them. Charles wastrying to improve his life and have hope for the future, while Marion was toostuck in the past to move on.
Even though Fitzgerald drank himself into anearly death, he could have been providing a choice to his readers. They couldeither be like Charles and get help and do what they could to rebuild theirlives. Or, they could be like Marion and stay stuck in the past, filled withguilt. That choice was extremely relevant to Fitzgerald’s original readers andhis still significant to his modern readers. There will always be negative inthe world – what people choose to do with the negative is what is truly important.