man standing off to the side looking down at a marble bust of another man laying atop a pile of broken columns

By the Waters of Babylon

by Stephen Vincent Benét

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What does John see in his vision-dream in "By the Waters of Babylon?"

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John saw a vision of the Dead Place where the gods walked that used to be New York.

John’s world is one that exists in a post-apocalyptic version of Earth, after the Great Burning.  It is never specific what this was, but it was clearly devastating to what seems to be our current culture and it left the people in a somewhat primitive state.  John’s people forage and salvage for metal from the former inhabitants (us), which they call the Dead Places, existing from what they call the Old Days.

John’s father is a priest, so he knows when his son has a vision-dream to take it seriously.  He realizes that his son is going to be a priest too.  John “asked for and received purification.”  His father asked him about his dream, a dream he had dreamed before.

I saw and told what I saw. It was what I have always seen—a river, and, beyond it, a great Dead Place and in it the gods walking. I have always thought about that.

John and his father take his dream seriously, even though it may eat him up because it is so “strong,” so he takes the dangerous journey to visit the Dead Place.

Even though John is afraid, he realizes that he cannot let his fear or the fears of others control him.

If I went to the Place of the Gods, I would surely die, but, if I did not go, I could never be at peace with my spirit again. It is better to lose one's life than one's spirit …

The Dead Place he goes to is newyork (New York).  The closer he gets, the more his fear turns to curiosity.  He is impressed by some things and confused by some things, and critical of others.  Once there, he visits what once where houses and streets, and sees many corpses of “gods” and realizes they are actually men.

This story gives us an example of looking at our world from someone else's eyes.  John sees what we have left behind.  At first he thinks he is seeing the world of gods, and then realizes he is seeing a world left behind by people who have destroyed themselves.  The lesson is clear.  If we are not careful, we will end up as nothing but artifacts.

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In "By the Waters of Babylon," what does John's dream make clear to you? 

The dream that John has near the end of the story makes it clear to readers that the story is taking place far in the future, and that John is visiting what is left of the great city of New York.

When a reader first begins reading this story, he/she might assume that the story is taking place in the past. The tribe that John belongs to has limited knowledge and primitive weapons. Once John leaves on his journey, readers begin to suspect that the story isn't taking place in the past. We are told about things like "god-roads" that cross huge rivers.

I saw both banks of the river — I saw that once there had been god-roads across it, though now they were broken and fallen like broken vines.

That description sounds a lot like broken suspension bridges. John adds further details about tall towers and fragments of labeled statues. John eventually enters one of the buildings, and that is when reader suspicion should definitely spike. There are door knobs, fireplaces, pictures hanging on walls, and hot and cold knobs in small rooms.

In the washing place, a thing said "Hot" but it was not hot to the touch — another thing said "Cold" but it was not cold.

When John goes to sleep that night, he dreams. He dreams of New York in its prime. He sees the city at night with all of its lights, busy people, traffic, and noise.

I looked out of another window — the great vines of their bridges were mended and god-roads went east and west. Restless, restless, were the gods and always in motion! They burrowed tunnels under rivers — they flew in the air.

The dream makes it absolutely clear to readers that the story takes place many years after the present day. New York has been destroyed by some cataclysmic "Great Burning." All of its people have been killed. All of its knowledge has been destroyed. For John, the dream is a revelation as well. He now knows that the "gods" were merely regular humans with great learning and tools.

But they were men who built the city, not gods or demons. They were men. I remember the dead man's face. They were men who were here before us.

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