Crafty Use of Point of View in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited.”
by Brad Windhauser
Told in five sections, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited” makes use of its structure and point of view in order to align us with the protagonist, Charlie. Although Charlie has made a lot of “mistakes” in his life, the author uses Charlie as our point of view in order to invite sympathy for this character—this serves Fitzgerald’s message: Charlie should be forgiven for his past and allowed to regain custody of his daughter. Since there are several aspects of the story that mirror Fitzgerald’s own life, the story too justifies the author’s own life.
Charlie has arrived in Paris to see his little girl, who is under the care of her aunt and uncle. We don’t yet know why his little girl is under someone else’s care, but we know Charlie is in a bar, trying to avoid having more than one drink. The place, the city have changed immensely since he last lived there: the stock market crash of 1929 has sent the vast amount of ex-pat Americans packing. In order to appreciate the use of structure and point of view, we can look at what each of the five sections accomplishes towards the author’s goal with the story.
The first section – Establish Good Will for Charlie
We meet Charlie in, of all places, a bar. Selected with care, this seemingly bad choice for a location (for a character struggling with alcohol) establishes the strength with which Charlie is operating—he has slowed his drinking way down. The fact that he can maintain this in a bar speaks volumes. We also learn the heart of the plot: he’s in Paris for a short trip in order to see his little girl. After the bar, he walks through the “new” Paris—post-stock market crash, the expats have fled, leaving a ghost-town (through Charlie’s eyes) vibe to the city. On this stroll we hear his regrets—about how he wasted so much time, money carelessly. To capitalize on this, when he walks by a hotel that is in full party swing, he recoils, which signals his distaste for this lifestyle.
Thus in the first section we have been shown the elements of Charlie’s character that invite invite sympathy for him (nothing bad yet). On the surface, the author has tested Charlie in several ways (the bar, the hotel), and by showing how he resists, we see a man who has a strong will and resists the partying lifestyle. The section ends with a vague mention of his child being taken from him and his wife having died—“escaped,” is how it’s referred to, which signals that she too wanted out of this lifestyle too (perhaps the marriage too, but more on that later). These carefully timed and selected details build sympathy for him as a character, and since we don’t know the extent of his story, this sympathy takes root easily.
The second section – Build on Good Will for Charlie
Charlie is eating lunch with his nine-year-old daughter, Honoria. The first line of dialogue here between the two demonstrates Charlie being a good parent: “Now, how about vegetables. Oughtn’t you to have some vegetables?” He even engages in a conversation with her little doll.
This scene allows for an image of a doting father to take hold. And since we know nothing of his parenting before, this is the image that sticks. This serves Fitzgerald’s purpose: he shows that these two are happy together and that the girl WANTS to be with her father. Furthermore, the details suggest that Charlie can be an appropriate parent.
After this positive impression surfaces, Fitzgerald then weaves in some of the relevant back story.
Leaving lunch, they run into two old friends (Lorraine and Duncan), with whom Charlie and his wife partied. The woman is shocked to learn that, one, Charlie has a little girl; and two, that he appears to be sober. Both details suggest that his hard life style left no room for parenting nor chance of change. These details are important to the back-story (and soon to become relevant to the present story), but timing is key. We have already seen the “changed” Charlie and respect him more for being who he is, not focusing on who he was.
The third section – With Sympathy for Charlie Established, We Learn the Awful Past
Here is the heart of the story, and it’s no accident that the story waited this long to reveal it. By spending time with Charlie alone and then with Honoria, we now sympathize with him, and with this feeling we want him to get whatever it is he wants. So when we see the tension between his sister-in-law (Marion) and her husband (Lincoln) over the guardianship of Honoria, we pull for him. This feeling also allows us to stick to his side of the “incident” with his wife, the one which his sister-in-law believes lead to her untimely death. Since we’re in Charlie’s point of view, we see Marion as being unreasonable rather than someone who is doing the right thing by protecting her niece from Charlie. We know Charlie to already be a good guy.
When this section ends with Marion seeming to relent and restore Honoria’s guardianship to Charlie, we feel justice served for him.
The fourth section – Worlds Colliding Test Our Sympathy
Feeling a sense of victory, Charlie circles his emotional wagons. Encouraged by his Lincoln, he prepares to take his daughter with him, now that he has demonstrated that he is on his feet (by building a business and overcoming his past). Not so fast. Back at the in-law’s home, while he awaits this breakthrough moment, Lorraine and Duncan storm in, all drunk, and spoil everything. The ghosts of the past—here as much physical and well as emotional—arrive to remind the Marion of the pain that created this situation for them. She retreats. With her changing her mind about relinquishing Honoria, Charlie must accept that his time has not yet come. Given where our sympathies lie, we feel his pain.
Had we been aligned with Marion, for example, their arrival would have served a different purpose: see, he’ll never escape his past. He does not deserve Honoria.
The final section – Charlie Retreats to Fight Another Day
This last section finds Charlie where he started the story—at the bar. Assessing his prospects, he seems committed to staying on course for himself and his daughter. And here is the moment where the story’s message is revealed: unlike most people who invested money and lost their lives in the stock market crash, Charlie remarks to the bartender that he lost everything in the boom. Encouraged by vast amounts of seemingly disposable income, Charlie and his wife lost their character, and in the process they destroyed a marriage—and the wife lost her life. Charlie’s pain glows here, and since we are aligned with him, we feel his pain and want him to stay on course and eventually regain custody of the daughter her loves. When the line “They couldn’t make him pay forever” arrives, we see him as the victim here, not as someone who is understandably kept from his daughter (for her own sake).
This same message would not be conveyed from a different point of view. Had this story been told by Marion, we would feel very differently about Charlie and the situation as a whole. In order to convey her version of the situation and Charlie, the narrator would likely have begun the story with what a bad guy he was and what happened with the wife. This would force the reader to see him in a negative light and Marion as the victim, a woman doing her best to honor her dead sister’s memory and protect her niece. This would have created a very different story and a different message.
Since Fitzgerald had other things in mind, he instead used a point of view and structure that best suited his purpose and his story’s message.