What were John's goals in "By The Waters of Babylon"?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In different parts of the story, John has different goals. First, his goal is to pass the Dead Places test his father gives him so he can be a priest. Then his goal is to learn all the knowledge and priestly magic well. After that, his goal is to have his father's permission to go on his journey and be a man. His next goal is to achieve his dream of seeing "the gods walking," even though to do so is forbidden. His next goal is to recognize the signs he is sent and follow them: "I prayed and purified myself, waiting for a sign. The sign was an eagle. It flew east."

I saw it and told what I saw. It was what I have always seen—a river, and, beyond it, a great Dead Places and in it the gods walking."

. . . [Father] said, "This is a strong dream. . . It may eat you up."

After making it through the forest, his goal is to cross the Ou-di-sun (Hudson) river and get to the Place of the Gods, even though these things too are forbidden. His final goal is to introduce his new knowledge to his people—the People of the Hills—gradually, as instructed by his father, and to become Chief Priest (like his father). His goal is then to take a "company" of men to the Place of the Gods to collect the wealth of knowledge there: "We shall go to the Place of the Gods—the place newyork—not one man but a company."

In the story, John's two most engrossing goals are to follow his dream and to cross the river to the Place of the Gods. The dream he wants to follow is the dream he was given during the time of his priesthood purification. His dream given at that time was that he will see "the gods walking." This is a difficult dream because to go to the Place of the Gods is forbidden, and even to journey toward the Place—to journey to the east—is forbidden. It is also difficult because to go there is to enter where "spirits live, and demons" and where "there are the ashes of the Great Burning."

Crossing the river is also forbidden, and raises great fears in John's mind. In fact, after building his raft for the crossing, he prays the "sayings of the dead" and paints himself "for death." He believes following his goal of crossing the "great river" will lead to his death at the gods' hands, so he "began" his "death song":

"I am John, son of John," I sang. . . 
"Open your hearts, you spirits, and hear my song.
Now I go to the Place of the Gods, I shall not return.
My body is painted for death and my limbs weak, but my heart is big as I go to the Place of the Gods!"