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

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What is the main theme in "The Waters of Babylon"?

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I would say that the theme of the story is the difference between knowledge and truth. The son longs to learn the secrets of the “dead places.” His journey to the bombed out city is forbidden by the laws of his people, but he is compelled to go nevertheless. What he discovers is that the “gods” of this place were not gods at all — they were humans like himself. While their technological achievements were very great, the “gods” were most definitely fallible, as the ruins of the great city attest. 

The son’s thirst to know is distinguished from the laws of the priesthood and of his society, which forbids travel to the dead places. The “truth” about these places, as he has learned it from his father, is that they are dangerous, poisonous places, and that the ways of the gods are an unsolvable mystery. These rules are in place in part to protect the hill people from making the same mistakes the “gods” made. As his father puts...

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