By the Waters of Babylon by Stephen Vincent Benét

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In "By the Waters of Babylon," how does the first-person point of view affect what the reader knows about John and about events in the story?

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Jonathan Beutlich eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The story's being narrated in the first person means that readers only know what John chooses to tell us or show us. As readers, we are limited to John. We know his thoughts and emotions, but we don't know the motivations of other characters unless they expressly tell them to John. The main narrative impact of a first person narration on this story is that readers discover John's discoveries with him. We are not told in the beginning of the story that the story's setting is far in the future. We learn it as John learns that the Place of the Gods was once a thriving human city. Readers discover the repercussions of runaway technology, nuclear war, and lost knowledge through John's wanderings of the east, the god-roads, and New York. By the end of the story, John realizes the importance of the lost knowledge, and readers are reminded to take care of the knowledge we have in the present.

I saw them with wisdom beyond wisdom and knowledge beyond knowledge.

[...]

Nevertheless, we make a beginning. it is not for the metal alone we go to the Dead Places now— there are the books and the writings.

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Susan Hurn eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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When a story is told from a first-person point of view, the reader knows only what the narrator tells him, and the narrator's view is always a limited one. The narrator can recount only what he or she has heard or experienced directly. In this story, John is a young man who explains the history of his people, describes places, and recounts the events of the story in his own language and in the context of what he understands. As readers, we experience his journey as he experiences it.

The power of the story lies in the contrast between what John understands and our growing awareness of what has happened and what is happening. As the story develops, we slowly realize that John and his people live in the Northeast United States and that his journey takes him to New York City. In the story's shocking and sad conclusion, we understand that civilization has been destroyed by a terrible war; there are strong suggestions in the story of an atomic war that left the city contaminated with radiation for generations. In learning what had happened, we realize the significance of what John has told us about his people and their way of life.

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