In "By the Waters of Babylon" what is the Great Burning? Why and how did it happen?

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mrs-campbell eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In this story, the exact details of "the great burning" aren't given, but there are quite a few details and clues that, if you fill in the gaps, you can piece things together.  You have to use inference, or educated guesses as to what exactly happened.

Some of the first clues that we have are related to the metal that John mentions as being forbidden to touch.  He suggests that touching the metal can cause you to become sick and die--on one foraging trip with his father, John writes,

"Then my father came out with the metal -- good, strong piece. 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, holding the metal and not dying was a pretty rare thing.  This alludes to possible radiation poisoning; the metal held remnants of radiation that if touched, could cause serious damage.  If you take that piece of information, you can conclude that it was probably a nuke that burned out civilization.  Nukes have tons of leftover radiation; they detonate when set off, and cause a lot of burning.

Other clues include the fact that John and his father come across bones of dead people; whatever happened had to kill a lot of people.  When John visits the ruins of the city, this is confirmed.  When he gets to the house where he sees the man in the chair, its state of decay indicates it didn't burn, but died of the radiation.

As for why people nuked each other, that is not mentioned either.  John suggests that they had too much information too fast and used it unwisely--this means we had too much technology and used it for harm, not for good.  War is a part of human history from the beginning, and it is always over power, control, and resources.  So we can assume that was the case here, too.  As for when, it was long enough for bodies to completely decay into bones, and for at least three generations of survivors to be born--John's father, and John himself have no first-hand memory of the events, so it had to have occurred during John's grandfather's time or before that.

I hope that those thoughts helped a bit; good luck!

uwhs-stu | Student

Benet leaves alot of the elements of the story out of his text, so you are left to assume the setting and the terms he coined, "gods" "great burning" "dead places." Assuming the setting is set in New York city, the great burning deals with a nuclear attack that occurred years before because it clearly states of the posioning ground. the ground is only posioned when a bomb such as the one dropped in WWII. So the great burning can depict numerous ideas but the assumption is nuclear warfare

ozzman | Student

i did some research on what things happened before and during 1937 that would cause the autohor to make such a story and it just so happens that in 1937 a huge aircraft blew up causing flames and parts and stuff from the plane to go everywhere so that is a possibilty of being the great burning?


jaguar174 | Student

the nuclear happen in1937

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By the Waters of Babylon

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