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

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What does John see in his vision-dream in "By the Waters of by Babylon?"

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John saw a vision of the Dead Place where the gods walked that used to be New York.

John’s world is one that exists in a post-apocalyptic version of Earth, after the Great Burning.  It is never specific what this was, but it was clearly devastating to what seems to be our current culture and it left the people in a somewhat primitive state.  John’s people forage and salvage for metal from the former inhabitants (us), which they call the Dead Places, existing from what they call the Old Days.

John’s father is a priest, so he knows when his son has a vision-dream to take it seriously.  He realizes that his son is going to be a priest too.  John “asked for and received purification.”  His father asked him about his dream, a dream he had dreamed before.

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.

John and his father take his dream seriously, even though it may eat him up because it is so “strong,” so he takes the dangerous journey to visit the Dead Place.

Even though John is afraid, he realizes that he cannot let his fear or the fears of others control him.

If I went to the Place of the Gods, I would surely die, but, if I did not go, I could never be at peace with my spirit again. It is better to lose one's life than one's spirit …

The Dead Place he goes to is newyork (New York).  The closer he gets, the more his fear turns to curiosity.  He is impressed by some things and confused by some things, and critical of others.  Once there, he visits what once where houses and streets, and sees many corpses of “gods” and realizes they are actually men.

This story gives us an example of looking at our world from someone else's eyes.  John sees what we have left behind.  At first he thinks he is seeing the world of gods, and then realizes he is seeing a world left behind by people who have destroyed themselves.  The lesson is clear.  If we are not careful, we will end up as nothing but artifacts.

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