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By the Waters of Babylon

by Stephen Vincent Benét

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How does John's visit to the Place of the Gods change his character in "By the Waters of Babylon"?

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To be honest, I am not convinced that John’s character really does change over the course of “By the Waters of Babylon.”  Instead, I would argue that John remains the same person, but adapts a little bit to his new-found knowledge.  However, if we have to argue that John’s visit to the Place of the Gods changes his character, we can say that it makes him bolder and less inclined to simply obey rules.

We can argue that, at the beginning of the story, John is a conformist who feels that it is important to obey the rules.  If we look at the first paragraph of “By the Waters of Babylon,” we see that John uses the word “forbidden” six times, just within those few sentences.  The whole first paragraph concerns what is acceptable and what is forbidden.  From this, we can infer that John is very concerned with the rules and that he wants very much to conform to those rules.  This makes sense because John is part of the ruling class of his society, a priest and the son of a priest in a society that seems to be ruled by its priests.  Such a person would probably think that the rules are good ones and that people should obey them.  We can say that this was the essence of John’s character at the start of the story.

But then John visits the Place of the Gods.  While there, he finds out that some of the things that he believed are not really true.  He discovers that the “gods” were really just people.  He has become something of a revolutionary.  He tells his father that he is willing to die for saying so, but that he knows that the “gods” were really just humans.  He also comes to believe that his people should try to find knowledge in the “dead places,” not just pieces of metal that they can use.  In short, he no longer believes in the rules of his society.  We can at least argue that this is a major change in John’s character.  We can say that he goes to the Place of the Gods and that what he sees there changes his character.  It changes him from a person who obeys his society’s rules to one who wants to change them in radical ways.

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In "By the Waters of Babylon" how does John become more mature because of his journey?

Before he left, John was an adolescent still bound by tradition, obedience to his tribe and father, and unsure of his capabilities.  Along his journey, he gathers strength and courage as he fights off wild animals, bests the Forest tribes, and makes decisions on his own. He gains confidence, and feels okay in passing previously set boundaries.  He takes things further than anyone else in his tribes has done before, and as a result, gains more knowledge than anyone else.

His journey also opens his eyes to a great truth, that the gods were men, just like them.  This gives him incredible knowledge and power; then, when he gets home, upon the advice of his father, he tempers that knowledge with wisdom, choosing to dispense his knowledge a bit at a time, in order for his people to use each bit wisely.  We him making a very wise and mature decision; a normal adolescent would come home bragging about all that he had seen.  John makes the more responsible choice.

He left his tribe a boy who saught permission to do all that he did.  He was naive and expectant, insecure and had a very limited perspective.  He came back full of confidence, having passed numerous tests of strength and courage, and armed with knowledge that would change him and his people for the good.

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