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

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What is the setting of "By the Waters of Babylon" by Stephen Vincent Benét?

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"By the Waters of Babylon" has two settings. The entire story takes place in the future, after a nuclear holocaust has destroyed the advanced technological civilization of people like us.

The story's action begins, after some background, with John, the priest's son, outside of his village, fasting on a flat rock. He lives close to nature, apparently much like a Native American in centuries gone by. He takes an eight-day journey through the wilderness to arrive at what he calls the Place of the Gods.

The Place of the Gods is the other setting of the story. It becomes evident to the reader that this is what used to be New York City. John marvels at what he sees there: tall towers, a broken statue of George Washington, paintings, a cooking place but no wood, lamps but no wicks.

John realizes that the people who built the city were not gods, but humans. He goes back to his village determined to learn more about this lost civilization.

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"By the Waters of Babylon" is set sometime in the future. The date is never specified, but it has to be a long time in the future. During the story, readers will learn about a "Great Burning" that happened. We also learn that at some point before the story begins, simply touching metal meant certain death. A cataclysmic nuclear disaster or war would explain a great burning. Metal that is full of harmful radiation would have the power to kill as well. The story takes place far enough into the future where that harmful radiation is gone. Additionally, nobody remembers exactly what the Great Burning was. Nobody remembers huge cities of people. A lot of time has passed.  

As for a physical location, the story begins just west of present day New York City. Readers are told John travels east for eight days before finally seeing the Place of the Gods (New York). John explores the former New York City for a bit and then returns to his village.

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