By Stephen Vincent Benét (1898-1843)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2010
Type of Work and Publication Year
......."By the Waters of Babylon" is a short story centering on a young man from a post-apocalyptic society who goes forth from his village to learn and explore. The narrative has elements of the science-fiction, adventure, and coming-of-age genres. The Saturday Evening Post published the story in the issue of July 31, 1937. The Pocketbook of Science Fiction published it in 1943.
.......The action takes place in the Eastern United States many generations after a war desolated civilization and left cities in ruins. Some descendants of the few survivors of the war live in a tribe in the countryside many miles west of the Hudson River (which the main character refers to as the Ou-dis-on). They are called Hill People. The men use bows and arrows to hunt, and the women spin wool to make fabrics. One member of the tribe travels to a forbidden zone (New York City) and explores the ruins.
John: Son of a tribal priest (similar to a shaman or witch doctor) in a post-apocalyptic society. John also becomes a priest.
John's Father: Priest who conducts the ceremony initiating his son into the tribal priesthood.
John's Brothers: Hunters.
Forest People: Ignorant rivals of the more advanced society in which John lives. John says he has fought against the Forest People.
.......John tells the story in first-person point of view, using I, we, and other first-person pronouns. He uses simple words, for he has learned only the rudiments of the English language from old books that he has found. Consequently, the narrative is uncomplicated and easy to understand.
.......The main character, John, struggles against his own fears (internal conflict) and against real or imagined outside threats (external conflict), such as a pack of wild dogs and the Hudson River (which almost sweeps him away).
.......Only a priest or his son may enter Dead Places, says the narrator of the story, John. And no one may cross the river far off in the east to see the remains of the Place of the Gods, which the Great Burning reduced to ashes. Demons and spirits live there now.
.......A priest or his son may enter Dead Places for one purpose only: to look for metal. If either finds metal, he and the metal must undergo purification.
.......John, the son of a priest, has entered Dead Places with his father. He recalls a time when he stood at the door of a dead-house, afraid, while his father searched among the bones of men for metal. When he found a piece of metal, he handed it to his son.
.......I took it and did not die, John says. So he knew that I was truly his son and would be a priest in my time. That was when I was very young.
.......From then on, John's brothers showed him new respect, giving him the finest piece of meat and the warmest place at the fire.
.......In time, John goes alone to the houses in the Dead Places and learns chants, spells, and other secrets, such as how to staunch the blood from a wound. He also learns to read the old booksstories of the gods and the old waysand even to write in the manner of these books. He enjoys this activity and points out, We are not ignorant like the Forest Peopleour women spin wool on the wheel, our priests wear a white robe.
.......When the time comes for John to become a priest, he undergoes a purification rite in which "my body hurt but my spirit was a cool stone. His father tells him to look into the fire and report what he sees in his dreams. John says he sees a river, and, beyond it, a great Dead Place and in it the gods walking. When his father asks him to describe what the gods are wearing, he does so. His father says it is a strong dream that may eat you up. He then makes his son promise not to travel to the east and cross the great river to visit the Place of the Gods. Afterward, his father says, Now go on your journey.
.......With a bow and three arrows for protection, he leaves the village, fasting and praying. At dawn the next day, he looks for a sign and sees an eagle flying east. Because such a sign is sometimes the work of evil spirits, he remains where he ison a flat rock, fasting, while awaiting another sign. As the sun goes down, he sees four deer also traveling eastward. One is a white fawn. He follows the animals. Suddenly, a panther leaps upon the fawn. The narrator shoots an arrow through the panther's eye and into his brain. At nightfall, the narrator builds a fire and eats roasted meat.
.......The next day, the narrator continues his journey toward the eastern zone even though the law forbids him to go there. From John's village, it takes about eight days to reach the zone, the site of the Place of the Gods. Along the way, he passes many Dead Places. While camping near a Dead Place, he enters a dead-house and finds a knife, rusty but useful.
....... On the eighth day of his journey, the narrator arrives at the top of a cliff on the edge of a forest. Below is a long, wide, sacred river called Ou-dis-sun. No one else in his tribe, not even his father, had ever seen it. Looking to the south, he sees the Place of the Gods. Believing that they might see him, he drops back into the forest. During the night, the urge to cross the river to visit the Place of the Gods eats at him.
....... In the morning, a desire to see the Place of the Gods overwhelms John. He must satisfy that desire, he decides, even though he will die if he does so.
....... [I]f I did not go, I could never be at peace with my spirit again, he reasons. It is better to lose one's life than one's spirit, if one is a priest and the son of a priest.
....... After building a raft, he recites words for the dead and paints himself for death, then sings a song of death:
....... I go into the Dead Places but I am not slain.
....... I take the metal from the Dead Places but I am not blasted.
....... I travel upon the god-roads and am not afraid. E-yah! I have killed the panther, I have killed the fawn!
....... E-yah! I have come to the great river. No man has come there before.
....... It is forbidden to go east, but I have gone, forbidden to go on the great river, but I am there.
....... Open your hearts, you spirits, and hear my song.
....... Now I go to the Place of the Gods, I shall not return.
....... My body is painted for death and my limbs weak, but my heart is big as I go to the Place of the Gods!"....... On the river, he is afraid. The strong current grips his raft, and evil spirits seem to hover about him. His magic is useless. He feels very alone. He can see what were once god-roads that crossed the river. But they broke and collapsed during the Great Burning, when fire fell from the sky. When the river begins to carry him toward the Bitter Water of the legends, John asserts himself: I am a priest and the son of a priest!" He believes the gods hear him; suddenly gains control of the boat, using his pole to navigate to the Place of the Gods.
....... Near the shore, his raft turns over and he swims the rest of the way, managing to take with him his bow, arrows and knife. Once on land, he discovers that the ground does not burn, as the tales say, nor is the island covered with fogs and enchantments. It is simply a great Dead Place. There are old, cracked god-roads and ruins of the gods' towers.
....... He is expecting to hear the wailings of spirits and the shrieks of demons, but there are no sounds. The sun is shining, grass is growing, and birds and butterflies are flying and flitting. Not all the towers had crumbled. Here and there, a tower still stands. They are empty. He sees among the ruins letters carved into broken stone: UBTREAS. There is also a shattered image of a man or a god . . . who wore his hair tied back like a woman's. On a cracked stone he reads the god's name: ASHING. John prays to ASHING, although he never heard of that god.
....... As John roams about, he does not notice any smell of man. Few are the trees in this place of stone. There are many pigeons in the towers. Either the gods favored them or they were kept for sacrifices. There are cats, too, and packs of wild dogs. Although John is hungry, he does not hunt. Instead, he looks for the food of the gods, contained in enchanted boxes and jars. These have been found from time to time in the Dead Places. In the ruins of a huge temple, he finds jars of fruit and bottles of drink, which was strong and made my head swim. Afterward, he sleeps on a rock.
....... When he awakens, the sun is setting. He decides to head north toward a god-road. A dog follows. When he reaches the road, he notices that other dogs are behind the first one. He goes into a dead-house (Biltmore Hotel). Just as the dogs attack, he enters a room and closes its heavy metal door before the dogs reach it. He climbs many steps and opens a door into a chamber. After entering it, he opens another door and enters a room with windowsstill intactoverlooking the ruined city. He sees soft chairs, floor coverings (carpets), pictures on walls (paintings), a bird made of hard clay on a table, books, and other writings
....... The god who lived [here] must have been a wise god and full of knowledge, he thinks.
....... He notices a washing place without water and a device to cook in but no place to put wood. There are no candles or lamps with wicks, but there are objects that resemble lamps.
....... All these things were magic, but I touched them and livedthe magic had gone out of them, he thinks.
....... However, he feels the presence of spirits around him.
....... After exploring other rooms, John returns to the room with the soft chairs and pictures on the walls. It is evening. When he sees a box of wood and a fireplace, he builds a fire and goes to sleep in front of it. During the night, he awakens after the fire goes out. He believes he hears voices and whispers around him and feels the spirits drawing my spirit out of my body as a fish is drawn on a line. He then sees his body in front of the fire. He is not dreaming, he believes; everything he sees is real. When he looks out the windows, he does not see darkness but circles and blurs of lightlight so bright that ten thousand torches would not have been the same. He hears a roaring sound (traffic).
....... I knew that I was seeing the city as it had been when the gods were alive, he thinks.
....... He believes that he can see the sight only because his spirit is out of his body. If he had perceived it with his body, he would have died. He sees countless gods. They are walking and riding in chariots. He also sees bridges with god-roads leading east and west.
....... As I looked upon them and their magic, I felt like a child, he observes.
....... Then he beholds from his vantage point the fate of the gods, occurring when they make war against one another. They use fire from the sky and poisonous mist. It is the time of the Great Burning. Towers fall. Only a few gods escape, as the legends point out. Then there is darkness, and I wept.
....... When John wakes up in the morning, he wonders why the Great Burning happened.
....... It seemed to me it should not have happened, with all the magic they had.
....... He roams the building looking for evidence of the cause of the Great Burning. In a room he had not previously entered, he finds a dead god seated in a chair. He has wisdom in his face and great sadness. He had watched the destruction of his city, then died. Then John realizes that he had been a man, not a god or a spirit. Afterward, John no longer fears things and is able to fight off the dogs and later the forest people when he is on his way home.
....... His father does not reproach him for entering the Place of the Gods but asks him tell of his experiences. John reports everything and then wishes to tell his story to everyone in his tribe. But his father says he must present the truth a little at a time.
....... Now, John says, We make a beginning. Then he says, And, when I am chief priest we shall go beyond the great river. We shall go to the Place of the Godsthe place newyorknot one man but a company. We shall look for the images of the gods and find the god ASHING and the othersthe gods Lincoln and Biltmore and Moses. But they were men who built the city, not gods or demons. They were men. I remember the dead man's face. They were men who were here before us. We must build again.
.......The title alludes to the first verse of Psalm 137 in the King James Bible or the first verse of Psalm 136 in the Douay-Rheims Bible:By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. (King James)
Upon the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept: when we remembered Sion. (Douay-Rheims) This passage reports the sorrow the of the Jews after the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon gained control of Jewish lands and began deporting Jews to Babylon in 597 BC. After Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem in 586 BC and destroyed most of the city and its temple, he deported more Jews to Babylon, the capital of Babylonia, between 586 and 581. In 538, the Persians conquered the Babylonians, then permitted the Jews to return to their homeland. Babylon was situated east of the Euphrates River, more than 50 miles south of present-day Baghdad, Iraq.
.......In Benét's story, the descendants of the survivors of the Great Burning live in exile, like the Jews at Babylon. But John says he and his people will one day return to the ruined cities, including New York, and begin anew.
.......The climax occurs when John has a vision revealing the Place of the Gods (New York City) as it was just before, and during, the Great Burning.Everywhere went the gods, on foot and in chariotsthere were gods beyond number and counting and their chariots blocked the streets. They had turned night to day for their pleasure-they did not sleep with the sun. The noise of their coming and going was the noise of the many waters. It was magic what they could doit was magic what they did. . . . Then I saw their fate come upon them and that was terrible past speech. It came upon them as they walked the streets of their city. I have been in the fights with the Forest PeopleI have seen men die. But this was not like that. When gods war with gods, they use weapons we do not know. It was fire falling out of the sky and a mist that poisoned. It was the time of the Great Burning and the Destruction. They ran about like ants in the streets of their citypoor gods, poor gods! Then the towers began to fall. A few escapedyes, a few. The legends tell it.Denouement
.......In the denouement (conclusion), John reveals what he has learned from his experiences in the Place of the Gods and what happened when he returned home. (See the last four paragraphs of the story.)
.......By the Waters of Babylon presents an implied warning that war will eventually desolate civilization unless human beings learn to live with one another without resorting to violence to resolve their differences.
Advancement Through Exploration
.......John understands that the only way to better himself is to explore the world around him even though such exploration involves great risks. In a sense, he is like explorers of the pastseamen, scientists, philosophers, theologians, artists, and so onwho crossed physical or intellectual boundaries, often at the risk of their reputations or even their lives.
.......The tribal lawgivers establish boundaries beyond which no one may go. They do not realize, as John does, that some boundaries must be crossed and some forbidden zones must be entered if there is to be learning and progress. In their desire to maintain the status quo and remain within familiar boundaries, these lawgivers are obscurantistspersons who oppose enlightenment and human progress because they fear change and contact with the unknown. They are comfortable with things as they are.
Coming of Age
.......On his travels, John builds his confidence, gains a better understanding of himself and his capabilities, and learns about the world around him.
.......Superstition arises from ignorance. When a person cannot explain an event or a condition, he may attribute it to spirits or magic, as John does until he learns the truth about the world around him.
.......At the end of the story, John speaks of the rebirth of civilization as it was before the Great Burning.
.......In the first paragraph of the story, John says, "It is forbidden to go to any of the Dead Places except to search for metal and then he who touches the metal must be a priest or the son of a priest. Afterwards, both the man and the metal must be purified."
.......In the second paragraph, John says, "My father is a priest; I am the son of a priest. I have been in the Dead Places near us, with my fatherat first, I was afraid. When my father went into the house to search for the metal, I stood by the door and my heart felt small and weak."
.......In the third paragraph, he says, "Then my father came out with the metalgood, strong piece. He looked at me with both eyes but I had not run away. He gave me the metal to holdI took it and did not die."
.......The members of the tribe probably use pieces or sheets of metal to make shelters, containers, kitchen utensils, farm implements, and so on. In some instances, the metal they salvage may already be in the form of a useful item, such as the knife John found.
.......From what John says, some metal objects pose a danger, perhaps because they are unexploded bombs or artillery projectiles. John implies this possibility in the third line of his death song: "I take the metal from the Dead Places but I am not blasted."
.......John does not explain why "the metal must be purified." Perhaps unexploded weapons must be disarmed or otherwise neutralized; other objects might require removal of rust, oil, gasoline, or other contaminants or corrosives. It is obvious, however, that author Benét was not suggesting that metal was contaminated with radiation. When he wrote the story in 1937, the U.S. had not yet developed atomic weapons, which spread radioactive particles after they explode.
ASHING: Letters engraved in a stone remnant from a statue of George Washington on Wall Street in New York City.
Bitter Water: Ocean water, described by John as bitter because of its salt content.
fishhawk: Osprey, a black-and-white bird that dives for fish.
great temple in the mid-city: Grand Central Terminal (railroad terminal often referred to as Grand Central Station).
Biltmore: Biltmore Hotel, which adjoins Grand Central Terminal. When John enters this "dead-house" he sees pictures on the walls in one part of the building. These are paintings that the Biltmore Hotel houses in its Grand Central Art Galleries, opened in 1922.
Lincoln: Reference Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States, and to the Lincoln Tunnel, which connects Weehawken, New Jersey, with New York City.
Moses: Probably a reference to Robert Moses, who oversaw a construction of hundreds public facilities in New York City, including parks, playgrounds, tunnels, and highways. He also supervised completion of the Triborough Bridge (really three bridges), connection Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens.
Ou-dis-sun: Name for the Hudson River.
roof . . . painted like the sky at night with its stars: Ceiling of Grand Central Terminal.
UBTREAS: Letters engraved in a stone remnant from the The United States Subtreasury building on Wall Street in New York City. A subtreasury is a regional bank that holds federal funds.
- In what ways is the story prophetic?
- Write an essay comparing and contrasting the plot and theme of "By the Waters of Babylon" with the plot and theme of The Planet of the Apes, an American film based on the novel La planète des singes, by Pierre Boulle. (If you wish, you may compare and contrast the short story with an English translation of Boulle's novel.
- Write an essay focusing on the aftermath of a real-life Great Burningthe bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended the Second World War.
- In your opinion, how many years after the Great Burning did John visit New York City?
- Is "By the Waters of Babylon" a story of optimism or pessimism?