Babylon Revisited: And Other Stories | Study Guide

F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Babylon Revisited: And Other Stories | May Day | Summary

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Summary

The story is set in New York City about six months after the armistice of November 11, 1918, brought an end to World War I in Europe. Two old college friends, Philip Dean and Gordon Sterrett, meet at the Biltmore Hotel. Gordon is down on his luck and begs Philip for a loan. Philip refuses, revealing himself as cold, judgmental, and pompous. Philip will attend a Yale fraternity dance later that same day, and Gordon considers going as well. At dinner Philip makes a paltry loan to Gordon, less than the latter had hoped for.

The scene shifts to Sixth Avenue, where two demobilized soldiers, Gus Rose and Carrol Key, are aimlessly wandering the nighttime streets with the idea of finding some liquor. On the street a Jewish war protester is pummeled by a crowd. Gus and Carrol make for Delmonico's, where Carrol's brother George is employed as a waiter.

Meanwhile, Edith Bradin, Gordon Sterrett's former girlfriend, prepares to attend the fraternity dance escorted by Peter Himmel, whose manners she finds annoying. When Edith encounters Gordon, however, she is unnerved by his appearance and condition. In an example of situational irony, only a few moments earlier Edith "was falling in love with her recollection" of him. Now, she thinks, he has gone to seed.

At Delmonico's Peter Himmel catches sight of Carrol and Gus, and the three men start drinking together. Angry at Peter's drunkenness, Edith asks a stag (a gentleman without a date) to escort her from the dance. Then she decides not to go home but instead to visit her brother Henry, who is a journalist. Jewel Hudson has a tense encounter with Gordon Sterrett, accusing him of avoiding her. She commands him to accompany her away from the dance, and he reluctantly accedes to her wishes. She has been blackmailing him.

At the newspaper office with Henry and his colleague Bartholomew, Edith has arrived just in time to learn of the citywide unrest because of May Day conflicts involving socialists, workers, and protesters. In a clash at the newspaper office, Carrol is pushed out a window to his death, and Henry's leg is broken.

Once again the scene shifts, this time to Childs' restaurant at Fifty-Ninth Street. It is now early morning. The restaurant is full of drunken revelers from the Yale fraternity dance at Delmonico's. Gus Rose feels mournful after Carrol Key's death. Gordon, Philip, Peter, and Jewel Hudson are at Childs' as well, and a violent confrontation seems imminent as dawn breaks.

As a practical joke, Philip Dean and Peter Himmel steal the "In" and "Out" signs from Delmonico's cloakroom and go to eat and drink together. They visit hotels, the Commodore and then the Biltmore, laughing convulsively. In a small hotel near Sixth Avenue, by contrast, Gordon Sterrett concludes his outing with a painful hangover and the oppressive realization he is married to Jewel Hudson. He buys a revolver at a sporting goods store, returns to his rented room, and commits suicide.

Analysis

This long short story is the size of a small novella. Its disparate characters and restless shifts of scene all combine to produce a consistent tone of desperation. In the wake of World War I, surface gaiety serves only as a veneer for gold digging, alcoholic blur, blackmail, political rancor, and personal betrayal.

Fitzgerald's first signal to the reader lies in the title. In the late 19th century, people began celebrating May Day as a holiday honoring workers and industry. In 1919 just before Fitzgerald wrote this story, violent riots shook the city of Cleveland, Ohio, on May Day. Finally, the usage of "Mayday" as a distress signal by ships' crews and others in peril originated about this time. Derived from the French m'aidez ("Help me!"), a "Mayday" call on the radio amounted to a plea for aid in a dire emergency. All these meanings and connotations are relevant to Fitzgerald's tale.

Fitzgerald establishes the mood or atmosphere of the story early on with the extended, painful encounter between Philip Dean and Gordon Sterrett. The first emerges as egocentric, priggish, judgmental, coldly formalistic, and utterly detestable. The second is self-pitying, unlucky, and subservient. Between these two fellow Yalies, Fitzgerald signals to us there is not much to choose. The only difference is that one is strong and the other is weak.

The situations worsen as an alcoholic haze descends on virtually all of the characters in this story. The juvenile pranks of the spoiled, wealthy Ivy Leaguers are juxtaposed with the sober, indeed ominous, clashes of post–World War I politics, with their crosscurrents of anti-Semitism and anticommunism. Perhaps Fitzgerald's intention is to expose how trivial and petty the partygoers are in a world where serious social choices are playing out.

Two symbolic events cap the story. First, the sketchy pranks of Philip Dean and Peter Himmel, as "Mr. In" and "Mr. Out," reach a new low of boorish, juvenile, and destructive behavior. "In" and "Out" suggest an endless, automated cycle of movement. Second, the despair of Gordon Sterrett, to whom Philip had condescendingly tossed a $5 bill at the beginning of the story, culminates in suicide. Gordon's desperation signals a morally bankrupt society. Fitzgerald is unflinching in his condemnation of this 1920 world.

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