List at least three symbols in "By the Waters of Babylon" and explain what they mean.

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sciftw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Probably my favorite symbolic image from this story is the Place of the Gods. I like this symbolic image because it changes its symbolism at the end of the story. For most of the story, the Place of the Gods (New York) is a symbol of man's destruction and destructive capabilities. While exploring the city, John learns that the "gods" had great technology, but unfortunately they lost control of the technology and destroyed a great deal of the human population. Once John learns all of this, the Place of the Gods becomes symbolic of knowledge, potential, and a general rebirth of civilization.

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. They are hard to learn. And the magic tools are broken — but we can look at them and wonder. At least, we make a beginning. And, when I am chief priest we shall go beyond the great river. We shall go to the Place of the Gods . . .

East is also symbolic in this story. Similar to the Place of the Gods, east is symbolic in two ways. For most of John's tribe/people, the east is forbidden and a holy ground. It's also dangerous. However, John feels a strong pull to go east. For him, east is symbolic of knowledge. John hopes to find answers by going east.

It is forbidden to go east, but I have gone, forbidden to go on the great river, but I am there.

A third symbolic item in the story is metal. Concretely, metal is symbolic of a nuclear war. John doesn't know this, but it's clear to readers that the world was destroyed in a nuclear event. The metal is irradiated metal and dangerous to people. To the people in John's world, metal is a much more superstitious symbol. Only special people (priests) could supposedly hold metal and not die. It essentially has the power to identify who is "special." In that regard, the metal is symbolic of the people's fears and superstitions.

He looked at me with both eyes but I had not run away. He gave me the metal to hold—I took it and did not die. So he knew that I was truly his son and would be a priest in my time.

Susan Woodward eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The metal collected by the priests symbolizes the fears and superstitions of John's people.  It was believed by the members of his village that if one touched metal, he/she would die unless that person was destined to be a priest.   The superstition has its origins from the war that destroyed New York City.  Metal after the blast would have been radioactive, and so anyone touching tainted metal would probably get radiation poisoning and die.  So the adage of "don't touch metal" was born from that.  Over centuries, the fear stuck.  At some point, someone must have picked up metal and NOT died, and so that person was deemed as having special powers.  After that, only those who could hold metal and not die were priests.

The fact that John is travelling east in his journey is significant.  East symbolizes the quest for knowledge, and that is what John was seeking.  He wanted to know about the Place of the Gods.  He sees an eagle fly east and determines that this is a good omen.  Eagles also symbolize knowledge.

The broken buildings and statues in what used to be New York City symbolize man's self destruction.  Technology got out of hand, and someone used it to destroy known civilization.  It is an apocalyptic story about the end of times, but offers hope that civilization can be reborn.  John refrains from telling the truth about the gods in order to protect his people from a similar fate.