Babylon Revisited: And Other Stories | Study Guide

F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Babylon Revisited: And Other Stories | Absolution | Summary

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Summary

Father Adolphus Schwartz, a midwestern Roman Catholic parish priest, is strangely disquieted. He cannot seem "to attain a complete mystical union" with the Lord. Sensory impressions crowd in on him. He is, in a word, disconsolate.

One afternoon, 11-year-old Rudolph Miller, son of the town's freight agent, visits Father Schwartz in his study. The boy is highly apprehensive. He tells Father Schwartz that on Saturday, three days ago, he had been to confession, according to his father Carl's wishes. He had confessed a number of sins, but he had lied in saying he never tells lies. This dissembling was a sin in itself—an offense that began to torture him with guilt. Even fantasies of the suave alter ego he had invented for himself, Blatchford Sarnemington, did not cheer him up.

Rudolph's problem multiplied when he faced the necessity of avoiding communion on the following day. A false confession meant he had committed a mortal sin, and in a state of sin, he was forbidden to receive communion. To create a plausible excuse, he had to arrange to "accidentally" eat or drink something before it was time to leave for church on Sunday morning—since, according to church rules, communicants were forbidden to eat or drink before receiving the Holy Sacrament. However, Rudolph's father catches the boy in the kitchen just as he is about to drink some water.

Now Rudolph is truly trapped. Receiving communion while in a state of mortal sin is an even greater sin, but at church he feels he has no choice but to go through with it under his father's watchful eye.

With the completion of this flashback, the story circles back to Rudolph's interview with Father Schwartz in the priest's study. Father Schwartz begins to talk strangely, commenting incoherently about things going "glimmering." Rudolph becomes afraid. At length the priest collapses on his knees and "wilts" to the floor while Rudolph runs out of the house in a panic.

Analysis

As often with Fitzgerald's works, it pays for the reader to start with the title. Absolution is the central feature of the Roman Catholic sacrament of penance, otherwise known as confession. In confession the penitent declares his or her sins to a priest who is seated in a booth behind a perforated slat that separates him from the person going to confession. (This arrangement was presumably devised to create both confidentiality and a certain anonymity.) After the sinner has identified his or her offenses, the priest imposes a penance (usually the recitation of one or more prayers) and then requests the penitent to make an "act of contrition"—a sincere statement of sorrow and regret, together with a promise to sin no more and to avoid "the occasions of sin." While the penitent says this prayer, the priest raises his hand, makes the sign of the cross, a gesture signifying reverence for the Holy Trinity of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, and officially absolves, or forgives, the penitent. Absolution is intended to purge the sinner of his or her offenses and to allow the soul to renew itself.

According to church doctrine, absolution can be compromised or nullified if the penitent has been insincere or the confession itself is incomplete or inaccurate. Thus, Rudolph takes himself to task for declaring to Father Schwartz that he never tells lies. Telling a lie in confession amounts to a grave sin. Even worse for Rudolph, it has the consequence of entailing another mortal sin on the following day: the reception of communion when he has not, in fact, been absolved of his previous offenses. The church has labeled this act as receiving communion "unworthy," meaning that a communicant in a state of sin is showing God grave disrespect.

Certain other aspects of this story may need explanatory glossing. In Section 4 the prayers of the Catholic mass just before and during communion are presented in Latin: Domine, non sum dignus; ut intres sub tectum meum; sed tantum dic verbo, et sanabitur anima mea ("Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed"). This prayer, with its emphasis on unworthiness, has a special relevance to Rudolph's situation. Then comes the prayer when communion is actually administered, as the communicant accepts the consecrated host or bread as the Body of Christ: Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam ("May the body of our Lord Jesus Christ keep your soul unto eternal life").

Unfortunately, the Latin epigraph for Section 5, the climactic part of the story, has been garbled. The reference is to Psalm 90:6, which reads as follows: A sagitta volante in die, a negotio perambulante in tenebris ("From the arrow aflight by day, from ensnarement prowling by night"). The context is the psalmist's prayer to the Lord to keep him safe from danger at all times. In monasteries, the psalm is chanted as part of Compline, the final prayer service in the tradition of daily canonical hours—a sequence of brief prayer services observed throughout the day from early morning to early evening.

The three major characters in "Absolution" are pitiable. Rudolph is tortured by guilt while Father Adolphus Schwartz comes perilously close to the edge of a nervous breakdown. Carl Miller uses religion as a club to browbeat his son and to shore up his own sense of worth. The story ends lyrically but inconclusively. We can be sure of only one thing: absolution has yet to occur.

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