man standing off to the side looking down at a marble bust of another man laying atop a pile of broken columns

By the Waters of Babylon

by Stephen Vincent Benét

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How does John break the law in "By the Waters of Babylon"?

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John breaks the law by traveling east, crossing the river, and going to the Place of the Gods.

In John's defense, one could argue that this is a case of his breaking the letter of the law rather than its spirit. In justifying his law-breaking, John hits upon the highly novel interpretation of his father's warning not to break the law by telling himself that it was his father's voice that spoke, but not his spirit. In any case, before setting out on his journey, it is clear that John has at least the tacit endorsement of his father.

Although John clearly violates the law, he still respects the gods. Over the course of his epic journey, he's constantly on the lookout for signs and omens from the immortals that indicate that they approve of what he's doing.

The spirit of the law is much more important to John than its letter, and he's fairly sure that the gods feel the same way. Besides, he realizes—in keeping with the values of the tribe's priesthood—that it is better for him to lose his life than his spirit.

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