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

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What are some literary elements in "By the Waters of Babylon" by Stephen Vincent Benet?

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luminos eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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This story is recounted in the first person by a young man living in a simple, post-apocalyptic society. His people, the Hill People, appear to make a living by hunting, gathering, and animal husbandry. They make clothing from wool, and scavenge for metal from the ruins of an ancient, technologically-advanced civilization. As the reader discovers during the course of the story, these people are the survivors of a devastating war. They understand very little about their heritage, though, and Benét conveys his narrator's distinctive cultural background by using several literary elements. Here are some of them:

Short, simple sentence structure, and a reliance on core vocabulary  

As has been frequently noted by reviewers, Benét's narrator speaks simply and uses short, common words. In part, this meets with stereotypical expectations of the Noble Savage—a view of pre-agricultural peoples as primitive and plain-spoken. Thus, the language helps convey John's unsophisticated background. At the same time, it is also powerful, poetic, and emotionally compelling, which is why politicians and religious leaders sometimes talk this way. Moreover, it's important to consider that real people don't actually talk like this in everyday conversation. Even if we restrict ourselves to common vocabulary, our utterances are usually convoluted, disjointed, incomplete, or rambling. John says things like this:

"Sometimes signs are sent by bad spirits. I waited again on the flat rock, fasting, taking no food. I was very still—I could feel the sky above me and the earth beneath."

This is not conversational language. It is too concise, too elegant in its simplicity. The effect is to elevate John's observations and descriptions. It is language fitting for a priest recounting a sacred tale.


John also uses repetition, another literary device that conveys a sense of poetry and ritual. For example, he repeats the question, "How shall I tell you what I saw?"

Metaphors and similes that convey closeness to nature

Again, as has been noted by others, the characters make use of a number of naturalistic metaphors and similes. These reinforce our impression of people who live in a pre-agricultural society. John is "cold as a frog," and his knees are "like water." He feels "as small and naked as a new-hatched bird." When he suggests that he tell everyone the truth, his father replies that "Truth is a hard deer to hunt."


Benét's characters speak of dreams as if they have humanlike attributes.

"This is a very strong dream," he said. "It may eat you up."

Restricted vocabulary for objects unfamiliar to the Hill People.

Benet conveys the cultural divide between John and the reader by restricting John's vocabulary. John's people have little knowledge of 20th century America, so when he discovers everyday objects from our society, he resorts to describing them using simple terms from his own world. When he discovers carpets in the apartment, he says he saw "coverings on the floors." The bathroom is a "washing-place." A vase is called a "jar."


Finally, Benét makes use of allusion. The title of the story is an allusion to biblical Psalm 36:

"By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion."

"Zion" represents for Benet the vanished civilization of 20th century America.

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The major literary element Benet uses is allusion. The title, "By the Waters of Babylon" is a reference to Psalm 137 in the Bible. The psalm tells about the sorrow the Israelites felt when Jerusalem ( called Zion) was destroyed by the Babylonians and the Jews were taken off as slaves to Babylon. The psalm starts with the line," By the Waters of Babylon, tjere we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion." This is an obvious reference to the civilization of the "gods' and their destruction. In addition, Benet uses very simple diction and sentence structure to capture the idea that the narrator is a simple human who is telling his story almost like an oral history. He uses the repetition of "It is forbidden" many times to capture the cadence of simple storytelling. In addition, Benet uses simple imagery, such as similies and metaphors to enhance the picture of John's natural world. For instance, he writes, "Like the buzzing of the bees," and "cold as a frog" and the compares knowledge to "a squirrel's heap of winter nuts". He also uses simple sayings such as "Truth is a hard deer to hunt."Benet also uses contrast to build irony in the story. In the beginning John feels "like a new-hatched bird" but in the end John looks forward to being chief priest when he can lead his people to "build again".

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