man standing off to the side looking down at a marble bust of another man laying atop a pile of broken columns

By the Waters of Babylon

by Stephen Vincent Benét

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In "By the Waters of Babylon", what message did John receive in a dream? Did he listen to his dream? Why or why not?

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As part of his growth to manhood, John must go on a journey, a rite of passage, guided by the dream or vision he has had during the ceremony in the house of the priesthood. His father questions him about the dream, and John describes seeing a river, a great Dead Place (abandoned city), and the "gods," the former inhabitants, walking there as if it were still alive. The dream troubles his father, since it speaks of matters that are ritually forbidden even to priests, and after casting lots he warns John that his "very strong dream" may "eat him up." This is a veiled hint that he should perhaps not listen to his dream, and John tries to reassure his father that he will not violate the taboos against traveling east, crossing the river, and going to the Place of the Gods. However, his reassurances are verbal only, since he has been convinced by his dream to violate the taboos, and his father gives him implicit support by reassuring him that even should he fail and die, his father will still be proud of him. In the first stage of his journey, he is still troubled by doubts, but after several incidents that he interprets as good omens (the white fawn, killing the panther with one shot, finding a knife, consistent good luck), he grows in resolution and carries on until he reaches the Place of the Gods.

Thus, the message John receives in his dream is to journey to the great Place of the Gods over the river, and he listens to it because of his inner conviction, his father's indirect support, and the good omens he encounters early in his trip.

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