What are some examples of figurative language and/or imagery in By the Waters of Babylon? How are they effectively used?

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accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

An issue that is inextricably interwined with imagery is the mode of narration in this story. Part of the secret of this story's greatness is the fact that it is told to us using the first person point of view, which means we are not given the setting of the story straight away, but rather have to work it out from the tantalising clues we are provided with. The imagery used in this story supports this narrative function of presenting us with a naive, young narrator who is overwhelmed with awe at what he witnesses and is not able to comprehend the truth of what he sees because of his primitive background and his lack of understanding of science.

There are many examples to pick on but this paragraph gives us a perfect example that identifies this lack of understanding:

All the same, when I came to the Place of the Gods, I was afraid, afraid. The current of the great river is very strong - it gripped my raft with its hands. That was magic, for the river itself is wide and calm. I could feel evil spirits about me, in the bright morning; I could feel their breath on my neck as I was swept down the stream. Never have I been so much alone - I tried to think of my knowledge, but it was a squirrel's heap of winter nuts. There was no strength in my knowledge anymore and I felt small and naked as a new-hatched bird - alone upon the great river, the servant of the gods.

Here we see the narrator misinterpreting the current of the river as "magic" - he feels "demons" surrounding him to partly explain this mystery, and he uses a very important metaphor that he uses to describe his lack of knowledge applied to this new situation. Note the nature imagery that is used to make it very appropriate - for this is the setting of the narrator and his only knowledge. This is followed by another nature simile, describing his innocence and inability to process and understand what is happening around him. These, like other examples, serve to highlight the tone of the story - that of mystery and awe.

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By the Waters of Babylon

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