Character Analysis: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Babylon Revisited Vs. Kate Chopin’s a Pair of Silk Stockings
Money is the root of all evil. Though indulging in lavish new clothing and experiences can bring momentary joy, money often causes more problems than it solves. “Babylon Revisited” by F. Scott Fitzgerald and “A Pair of Silk Stockings” by Kate Chopin are two stories with two very different plots. However, closer examination of their main characters reveals that both Charlie Wales and Mrs. Sommers have had similar experiences with materialism. Choosing what to invest in is an entirely personal judgement, but Charlie and Mrs. Sommers both spend without much thought. Charlie Wales and Mrs. Sommers both go on indulgent adventures but experience them uniquely.
The sources of the two characters’ incomes are entirely different, although a few parallels can be made. These details seem minute, but have an impact on the behaviors of both Mr. Wales’ and Mrs. Sommers’ spending habits. The similarity lies in the fact that both Mrs. Sommers and Mr. Wales encounter a decent sum of money that permits them to spend wildly. Although it is never clear as to how, Mrs. Sommers “found herself the unexpected possessor of fifteen dollars” (1). Charlie Wales finds himself in a slightly different situation. Charlie made his money in the stock market boom. Either way, both characters gained wealth quickly, almost as if out of nowhere. Though fifteen dollars for Mrs. Sommers “seemed to her a very large sum of money” (Chopin 1), her treasure cannot stretch quite like Charlie’s does. She begins to contemplate practical ways to use the money, though she recognizes that she will only be able to purchase a few items. In Charlie’s case, he gets himself an income that extends for years. Charlie likely feels proud of his wealth, as though he has earned it. How they receive and the amounts of money that both Mrs. Sommers and Charlie Wales come across reflect in the ways that they choose to spend it later in the stories.
The lives of the stories’ main characters are very unique at the time they come across their fortunes. Chopin makes it apparent that Mrs. Sommers lives a fairly modest life during this period, as the author states that possessing money was unexpected for the main character. She wonders about the seemingly ordinary items she will purchase for her children with fifteen dollars. Her original plan focuses on benefitting her children. Even so, she dwells on the feeling of luxury and importance the money gives her. The American economy in Mrs. Sommers’ time was not thriving. On the other hand, Charlie’s life in “Babylon Revisited” was in Paris, following a huge economic boom. The city was lush with parties, liquor, and energy stemming from the excitement of the booming stock market. In “A Pair of Silk Stockings,” the time and place seem to be entirely different, as even Mrs. Sommers’ neighbors reflect on “better days.” Mrs. Sommers refuses to spend time dwelling on how comfortable and lovely her life used to be. She “indulged in no such morbid retrospection” (1). She has apparently adapted and accepted this new frugal lifestyle, catering to her children before herself. Charlie Wales also has a child at the peak of his wealth and spending. However, his focus seems to be opposite Mrs. Sommers’, as he devotes his time to focusing on himself rather than his daughter. The time periods and settings from “A Pair of Silk Stockings” versus “Babylon Revisited” shape their characters differently.
Several factors influence Mr. Wales’ reckless lifestyle and foolish spending habits. His environment is the first: a big city, rich with nightlife, post-economic boom. Living lavishly was the norm, and it was expected. Charlie remembers, “thousand franc notes given to an orchestra for playing a single number,” and “champagne dinners and long luncheons that began at two and ended in a blurred and vague twilight” (286). The prosperous and wild Parisian culture quite obviously enthralled and persuaded Charlie Wales. Another object of influence on Charlie were the people he surrounded himself with. His acquaintances were wild, extravagant, and reckless. This is most apparently evident in the message his old friend Lorraine sends to him years later. She highlights some of their good old times: “that crazy spring… the night you and I stole the butcher’s tricycle, and the time we tried to call on the president” (293). Obviously Charlie’s friends were thrilled to be flagrant and childish, which caused Charlie to behave the same. When they were not indulging in juvenile activities, they spent time in nightclubs, bars, and crazy venues, eagerly blowing through cash all the while. Lorraine’s letter continues with, “[let’s] get together some time… I’ve got a vile hang-over for the moment, but will be feeling better this afternoon” (293). Alcohol had additional influence over Charlie, as it took authority of his life completely. Mr. Wales was fueled by alcohol, which encouraged him to spend large amounts of money at bars and clubs and restaurants. Charlie’s alcoholism proved to be one of his greatest downfalls- it took away from his parenting Honoria and caused him to spend money carelessly on parties and the expenses that come with them.
Like Mr. Wales, Mrs. Sommers is also persuaded to spend money, though perhaps less directly and aggressively. Although she seems to be focusing on the present rather than reminiscing the past or dreading the future, Mrs. Sommers does have thoughts of the days when she had “been accustomed to other pleasant things” (4). Knowing and remembering the joy that expensive items and experiences bring might have allowed Mrs. Sommers to justify her actions. She needed some escape from her repetitive, average life, and found some happiness in splurging on herself rather than on others. This thought in the back of her mind seems to power her: “she was very hungry. Another time she would have stilled the cravings… but the impulse that was guiding her would not suffer her to entertain any such thought” (4). Her hunger might not only be physical hunger for food but also the hunger or desire for an extravagant life, or even just a more elevated one than hers at home. She is usually forced to resist “cravings” or temptations to buy nice items, simply because she cannot afford them. Now, however, she is ignoring her typical routine and curbing her hunger by dining in a nice restaurant and buying expensive clothing. Unlike Mr. Wales, most of Mrs. Sommers’ consumerism stems from herself and her desires. Even so, Mrs. Sommers may also be swayed by advertising. Stores and companies attempt to attract customers such as Mrs. Sommers. She notices, “there were books and magazines piled up in the window” (4), and, “[the] next temptation presented itself in the shape of a matinee poster” (5). Additionally, the stockings Mrs. Sommers purchases are placed in perfect position atop the counter to encourage customers to feel their softness and quality. Store owners know how to attract profit in the subtlest ways, and Mrs. Sommers becomes victim of this magnet. In a sense, both Mrs. Sommers and Mr. Wales are encouraged to spend due to their enticing environments.
Charlie and Mrs. Sommers seem to be entirely hypnotized during their periods of materialism. They are obsessed with having the best of the best and focus on nothing but luxury. Early in “A Pair of Silk Stockings,” Mrs. Sommers repeatedly mentions her children, but immediately after buying the stockings, her home life is placed in the back of her consciousness. Her mind races to think of what to buy and what to do next. Charlie Wales seems to flaunt his money, later reflecting, “he had never eaten at a really cheap restaurant in Paris” (284). Mrs. Sommers is also eager to display her wealth, as she carries her new magazines without wrapping and beams at the waiter who treats her like royalty. Both Mr. Wales and Mrs. Sommers find themselves in hypnotic-like trances, only able to focus on themselves the items they want. Both characters lose all sight of family, love, or any real emotions aside from desire. It is not until after their obsessions with materialism that Mr. Wales’ and Mrs. Sommers’ emotions contradict entirely. Mr. Wales feels a level of guilt and regret for his actions so deeply that it forces him to reevaluate his life. Talking to the barman in Paris several years after his reckless younger days, he says, “‘I did [lose a lot in the crash]… but I lost everything I wanted in the boom’” (296). Charlie has finally regained real human emotion. He feels love for his daughter and pain for his wife’s death. He acknowledges that the fast-paced, luxurious life that money had once given him had blinded him from what truly mattered. Mr. Wales gains control of his alcoholism, cutting back to one drink per day, and fights for custody of Honoria. Returning to Paris leaves him with a bad taste in his mouth, now that he can, at last, view the city with “clearer and more judicious eyes” (285). Mrs. Sommers, on the other hand, feels entirely different when the day is over. Her time of pretend was thrilling and brought her a nostalgic joy that she will once again be forced to forget. Repetition is used to emphasize the melancholy that comes with nightfall: “the play was over, the music ceased, the crowd filed out. It was like a dream ended” (5). “Over,” “ceased,” and “out” are all similar words used to highlight Mrs. Sommers’ extravagant day coming to a close. Her day is compared to a dream, perhaps for two reasons: first, she had been hypnotized during her acts of spending, and second, this might be the life she dreams of having. Unfortunately, it has ended. She feels no sorrow or regret for neglecting her children’s needs and spending the fifteen dollars on herself, despite her original plan. Charlie is eager for new beginnings and a brighter future, while Mrs. Sommers dreads returning home.
Both Mrs. Sommers and Mr. Wales’ decisions effect their lives. The mother spends all $15 on herself, neglecting the chance to buy new things for her children. Charlie’s rambunctious, disillusioned lifestyle leads to trust issues when he goes to claim custody of his daughter Honoria. Consumerism takes a toll on both characters, whether it is for better or for worse. Impulsiveness can be dangerous in the best ways.
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