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

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What three things are forbidden in "By the Waters of Babylon" by Stephen Vincent Benet?  

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

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The three things that John and members of his society have forbidden are named in the very first paragraph of the story.  

  1. It is forbidden to go east.  
  2. It is forbidden to go to the Dead Places (unless you are a priest searching for metal).
  3. It is forbidden to cross the great river and look at the Place of the Gods.  

John never explains why those rules are in place, but a reader can piece parts of it together while reading.  It is forbidden to go east, because that is toward the Place of the Gods.  The Place of the Gods winds up being Manhattan, and the great river is the Hudson.  John tells the readers that the east and the Place of the Gods are where "there are the ashes of the Great Burning."  The mention of the "Great Burning" and the metal is a key detail.

The Great Burning is probably referencing a nuclear bomb being dropped on Manhattan.  A nuclear bomb incinerates everything.  Additionally, it irradiates untold amounts of territory.  The metal is most likely irradiated metal that can kill.  After the bomb was dropped on the city, the city itself was probably surrounded by a toxic cloud of nuclear radiation.  It is forbidden to go east, touch metal, and go toward the city, because going in that direction has probably caused hundreds of radiation poisoning deaths over the numerous years since the Great Burning occurred.  Those three rules exist to protect the current population of people. 

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Straight from the very first paragraph of the reading it states,

"It is forbidden to go east. It is forbidden to go to any of the Dead Places except to search for metal...It is forbidden to cross the great river and look upon the place that was the Place of the Gods--this is most strictly forbidden.

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