By the Waters of Babylon Questions and Answers
by Stephen Vincent Benét

By the Waters of Babylon book cover
Start Your Free Trial

In the story "By the Waters of Babylon," why does John set out on his journey, and why is it unusual?

Expert Answers info

Jonathan Beutlich, M.A. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

briefcaseTeacher (K-12), Professional Writer

bookB.A. from Calvin University

bookM.A. from Dordt University

calendarEducator since 2014

write6,396 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, Science, and History

John is the son of a priest; therefore, John is chosen to receive special treatment and training. As part of his education, John must go on a journey by himself.  

When I was a man at last, I came to my father and said, "It is time for me to go on my journey. Give me your leave."

A reason is never stated for why this journey is part of priest training, but a reader can assume John will not be allowed the recognition of full priesthood until he goes on his journey.  

Before leaving on the journey, John must participate in a ritual that determines where he shall go. The ritual is not complex. John looks into a fire and tells his father about his recurring dream:  

He bade me look into the smoke of the fire and see—I saw and told what I saw. It was what I have always seen—a river, and, beyond it, a great Dead Place and in it the gods walking. I have always thought about that. His eyes were stern when I told him he was no longer my father but a priest. He said, "This is a strong dream."

In addition to John's father telling John that the dream is strong, John's father tells him that the dream is dangerous and may "eat you up." Nevertheless, John is allowed to leave.  

The journey is unusual because John travels east. Right before leaving, John's father reminds John about how it is forbidden to go east.  

It is forbidden to travel east. It is forbidden to cross the river. It is forbidden to go to the Place of the Gods. All these things are forbidden.

Despite being warned, and despite knowing the law against going east exists, John still travels east. He even believes he is given signs that affirm his choice. For example, he sees an eagle and some deer traveling east. John believes he is being told to go east.

Further Reading:

check Approved by eNotes Editorial

ms-mcgregor eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2006

write1,918 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, History, and Science

John, the narrator, is the son of a priest of the Hill people. He has studied for the priesthood with his father and now has come of age. As part of his initiation rite into the priesthood, he has a dream about a gigantic Dead Place in the time of its glory. John's father is afraid the dream may "eat him up" but reluctantly sends his son on a journey of discovery that is the last initiation requirement. The journey is unusual because John travels east in a forbidden direction following a "god-road" to the taboo "Place of the Gods." His discoveries on the journey hold the keys to both the past and future of his people.

check Approved by eNotes Editorial

shadylady2012 | Student

John set out on his journey because he was becoming a priest and he was at the right age to do such a thing. Everyone that was to become a priest had a journey to set forth on at a certian time. It was unusual in a way because he traveled east in the forbidden area and found new york.


brucea | Student

His father wants him to get more knowledge of the place of the gods and the reason its so unusual is because he gets farther than anyone else has. He also finds out the storys of what the place is supposed to be like isn't true.