Babylon Revisited: And Other Stories | Study Guide

F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Babylon Revisited: And Other Stories | Context

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World War I

World War I (1914–18) was by far the most destructive conflict up to that point in history, with an estimated toll of nearly nine million dead and more than 21 million wounded. It was called "the Great War" and the "war to end all wars." From an American perspective, however, the impact was relatively minor. The United States found itself involved only from April 1917 until November 1918.

F. Scott Fitzgerald enlisted in the army in November 1917 and spent the war stateside. Perhaps the most dramatic event during his military service was his meeting the young southern aristocrat Zelda Sayre while he was stationed in Alabama. The two would become husband and wife in 1920.

World War I is specifically and importantly referenced in the story "May Day," several of whose characters are demobilized soldiers. In the opening paragraphs Fitzgerald focuses on the mood of delirious abandon that resulted from the Allied victory in the war.

Prohibition

Prohibition, mandated by the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, was ratified in 1919 soon after the end of World War I. This regulation banned the production, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages nationwide. In force for 14 years until its repeal in 1933, the law was widely ignored. Alcohol was easily available in bars and other outlets called speakeasies. If anything, national consumption of alcohol during the Roaring Twenties ballooned, and bootleggers (underground merchants of alcoholic beverages) earned vast fortunes. Prohibition became a bonanza for organized crime. Soon after the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, the 21st constitutional amendment repealed Prohibition.

In Babylon Revisited and Other Stories Prohibition serves as the background for the excessive alcohol consumption of numerous characters. Alcohol is especially prominent in "May Day," "The Freshest Boy," "Babylon Revisited," and "Crazy Sunday."

Money and the Crash

Just as historians remain divided on the causes of World War I, the causes of the stock market crash in October 1929 are still debated. Undeniably, however, financial irresponsibility during the 1920s at both an individual and a systemic level mushroomed throughout the United States. In particular it became far easier than ever before to purchase stocks "on margin"; that is, by paying only a fraction of the securities' full value. In a bull (favorable) market, this posed few problems, but when stocks declined in value and purchasers were subjected to "calls," defaults became ever more common. The Republican administrations of the era were reluctant to impose any financial regulations on such practices. In October 1929 the bubble burst, and a worldwide depression ushered in economic hard times that would last at least half a dozen years.

Meanwhile, among those lucky enough to have any money at all, there was a distinctive cleft in American society between "old money" and "new money." Those with old money jealously guarded for themselves an elite sense of privilege and entitlement (although their affluence might date back only two or three generations). Those with new money were snobbishly dubbed nouveau riche (French for "new rich") and were looked down upon by those with old money as inferior.

In Babylon Revisited and Other Stories the wealth of many of the characters is prominently on display. In "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz," Percy Washington tells John Unger that his (Percy's) father is the richest man in the world. In "Winter Dreams," Judy Jones turns down a suitor because he is not wealthy, and Dexter Green applies himself assiduously to making money. The narrator in "The Rich Boy" confides the rich are "different from you and me." Money also plays a significant role in "May Day" and "Babylon Revisited."

Modernism and the Jazz Age

By 1920 when Fitzgerald published his first novel, This Side of Paradise, modernism in the arts in both Europe and America had become firmly established. In literature the work of American poet Ezra Pound and British poet T.S. Eliot—along with their precursors among the Postimpressionists and Symbolists of the late 19th century—had revolutionized poetry and fiction. Pound and Eliot swept away Romantic and Victorian conventions and styles. "Make it new," enjoined Pound, and the new approach was replete with stark imagery, dense allusion, striking juxtaposition, and—eventually—stream of consciousness, a narrative technique in which a character's inner thoughts and feelings are recorded moment by moment.

Modernism in the arts preceded, and then coincided with, social upheavals that stemmed from a variety of causes, with the fallout of World War I prominent among them. The war spawned widespread disillusionment in Europe, especially in England, France, and Germany, which suffered millions of casualties. The severe peace terms imposed on Germany, compounded by the economic depression, left that country in shambles and despair. Within the United States social change accelerated to include women's rights, the rise of organized crime, blatant materialism, alcohol binging, distinctive popular music, and a new prominence for African American culture. A new phrase, possibly attributable to Fitzgerald, caught the flavor of the era, which became known as the "Jazz Age."

The tempo and the flavor of this era were fast, furious, and unconventional. Women, for example, began to wear short skirts, bobbed their hair, and smoked and drank in public. Their rebellion against accepted social conventions earned them the name flappers. Men's suits became less formal and baggier. A distinctive slang arose—some of which made its way into Fitzgerald's Babylon Revisited and Other Stories, as in this snatch of dialogue from "May Day": "Well, if any girl ever led a man on and then jolted him, she did—and she has no kick coming if I go out and get beautifully boiled" ("If any woman ever led a man on and then dropped him, she did, and she can't complain if I go out and get totally drunk").

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