What is the theme of "By the Waters of Babylon"?

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An important theme of this story is progress. In the story, society is depicted as having regressed to a much more "primitive" level after a nuclear holocaust. When John realizes that the magnificent dead city he visits (that we readers recognize as New York) was built by men, not gods, the possibility of change and progress suddenly bursts to life for him. His people, too, can some day rise to greatness, he thinks, because humans just like them did so in the past. However—and this is the most important part of progress—John also accepts the wisdom of his father: that too much change too fast can be lethal. When John wants to tell his people the truth that the gods were really men, his father counsels caution, saying:

Truth is a hard deer to hunt. If you eat too much truth at once, you may die of the truth.

The wisdom John comes to understand is that perhaps the earlier society learned too much too fast, and this destroyed them. The story invites us to ponder progress and to understand how important it is to move slowly and pair progress with wisdom.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on October 29, 2019
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One of the most popular themes for this text is that there is a price for knowledge.  This theme can be seen through the character of John who learns the truth about the Place of the Gods, but that knowledge changes his life and his relationships.  This theme is also evident by considering the individuals who lived in New York and had the knowledge that weapons could destroy them, yet created these weapons anyway.  That knowledge led to their demise.

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Central to the understanding of the theme of this short story is the point of view selected by the author. This masterful dystopian short story is used a lot in English teaching to give an excellent example of 1st person narration, where a character is telling you the story directly, and you can only see the action through their eyes, contrasted with an omniscient narrator who is god-like and all-seeing and can tell the reader what every character is thinking and feeling. This form of limited narration is used to great effect by the author as we literally go on the journey with John, seeing and feeling what he sees and feels, and we gradually piece together like a jigsaw puzzle what is going on, where we are and what has happened.

This narrative technique greatly serves to emphasise the message or theme of this story. We slowly begin to work out the many clues that there are (such as the names John gives things like "god roads" and what the sign "ASHING" really said) and realise that this story is set in a post-nuclear war world which has been decimated, and the inhabitants have sunk back into the dark ages. John and his tribe describe a primitive world with many threats and mysteries that they do not fully understand. However, during the course of his journey and the vision that he has in "the high towers of the gods" John reflects the moral of the story: "Perhaps, in the old days, they ate knowledge too fast."

This then is the brutal thematic warning that the story gives: we live in an era of unprecedented scientific discovery, yet we risk discovering too much truth too quickly, and opening some terrible Pandora's Box or using scientific advances before we fully understand their consequences. One only has to look at the press today and issues such as stem cell research, the human genome research project and cloning to see that the danger is still here and Benet's short story is still just as applicable in today's society. Of course, the tale is an open one, in that it invites its audience to sit up and take notice of its themes. Whether we respond or not is a decision that is still yet to be seen.

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