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By the Waters of Babylon

by Stephen Vincent Benét

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

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The main theme of "By the Waters of Babylon" is that knowledge is important. However, the improvements that knowledge can bring must be introduced slowly, as too much change all at once is destabilizing.

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I would argue that the main theme in "By the Waters of Babylon" is the thirst for knowledge. Unlike other members of the Hill People community, our protagonist, John, is dissatisfied with the rule that tribe members are forbidden to go east and to cross the great river.

As soon as he realizes that there is a lost civilization in the east, his desire is not for wealth or fame, but for knowledge. When he experiences what was once New York City, his thirst for the knowledge of those who lived in the city intensifies. He becomes determined to use his priesthood to help his people integrate all the knowledge that awaits into their way of life.

Understanding and knowledge cast out fear, and as John's knowledge grows, so his fear diminishes. The east is not, as his people had always told him, filled with magical mists or ever-burning flames. There are no spirits or demons, just an assortment of ruined buildings and a burning curiosity to know more.

John acknowledges that knowledge has not always been used well, which resulted in the destruction of the city. He also realizes that what he and the other Hill People have presumed to be gods were actually just people from an earlier society.

He returns home inspired by everything that he has learned and excited to share everything with his people.

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The main theme of "By the Waters of Babylon" is the importance of knowledge as a route to social advancement. Alongside this runs the idea that change based on new forms of knowledge is best introduced gradually.

John travels to the Place of the Gods and investigates it for himself instead of relying on traditional teaching. While there, he learns the important truth that it was built by humans, not gods. From that piece of information, he realizes that his people, too, can attain knowledge that was once believed to be godlike and out of reach.

This knowledge animates and excites him. He is eager to return to his village to spread a revelation that he believes will radically change his people for the better. However, when he gets back, his father says to him that

If you eat too much truth at once, you may die of the truth.

This cautions John to take care and slow down. He understands that the knowledge that his society can improve itself is important, but he also perceives that he could tear his society apart by shocking it with too much information all at once.

The story is a period piece, reflecting a time in which technological progress was seen wholly as a good. John never questions why the former, more advanced society he wants to emulate might have destroyed itself. Today, we might see more value in a hybridization of the ecological "primitivism" that John wants to abandon and technology.

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I would say that the theme of the story is the difference between knowledge and truth. The son longs to learn the secrets of the “dead places.” His journey to the bombed out city is forbidden by the laws of his people, but he is compelled to go nevertheless. What he discovers is that the “gods” of this place were not gods at all — they were humans like himself. While their technological achievements were very great, the “gods” were most definitely fallible, as the ruins of the great city attest. 

The son’s thirst to know is distinguished from the laws of the priesthood and of his society, which forbids travel to the dead places. The “truth” about these places, as he has learned it from his father, is that they are dangerous, poisonous places, and that the ways of the gods are an unsolvable mystery. These rules are in place in part to protect the hill people from making the same mistakes the “gods” made. As his father puts it after the son tells him what he has learned, “If you eat too much truth at once, you may die of the truth,” meaning that sometimes people are not ready to know everything. Although the son was compelled to break the law and visit the city to see things for himself, afterwards he comes to understand why the law existed in the first place — to prevent the people from “eating knowledge too fast.”

The story ends with the son deciding that once he becomes priest his people must return to the dead places to “rebuild.” The presumption is that their relearning of the old knowledge will be tempered by the truth that great knowledge does not make one infallible.

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I think the main theme of "By the Waters of Babylon" is the importance of knowledge.  That theme is a double edged sword though.  Knowledge is important to have and not lose, but it is equally important to not abuse.  

Throughout the story, the reader is learning about the world through the limited view of John.  Things seem vaguely familiar, but completely different.  Eventually the reader learns that the story is taking place in a far off future in a world that has been destroyed by nuclear war.  All of the technology and learning of hundreds of years before has been lost, and the world has reverted to tribal origins and deep superstitions.  The story ends with John vowing to bring back the lost knowledge to his people, so that they can once again be great.  

The other side of the importance of knowledge though comes as a warning from Benet.  John tells his readers that the "gods" had gotten too powerful in their knowledge.  Their learning accelerated beyond their ability to control it and its technologies.  The consequence was the destruction of the world.  

I saw them with wisdom beyond wisdom and knowledge beyond knowledge. And yet not all they did was well done—even I could see that, and yet their wisdom could not but grow until all was peace

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What are the themes of "By the Waters of Babylon"?

To me, the major theme of the story is the dangers of unrestricted scientific knowledge and man's inability to use that knowledge for good. This is based around the striking quote:

Perhaps, in the old days, they ate knowledge too fast.

Clearly the story paints a horrific dystopian picture of what could happen with the ever-daunting power man gains through science. Other themes that can be identified are the coming of age theme, truth and how we relate to it, and lastly, civilisation. What you need to do now is work on unpacking each of those themes and identify quotes that relate to each one to consider what the story has to say about each theme.

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Please summarize "By the Waters of Babylon."

Stephen Vincent Benet's "By the Waters of Babylon" tells the story of the Forest People and the Hill People and the reawakening that occurs when the narrator of the story visits a land far from his own. The superstitious people are forbidden from traveling east across the great river, but the narrator undertakes a great journey to find the true meaning of the "Dead Place." After traveling for eight days, he crosses the great river and enters the "Place of the Gods." Here he finds an ancient city in ruins, bordered by crumbling bridges and towers, where wild animals roam and birds fly above. He discovers a "dead god" overlooking the city, but he finally realizes the god is but a statue, and the city is the remains of New York. His discovery of the origins of the city and the realization that it was destroyed through a great fire from the skies will allow him to teach his people the true story of the "Dead Place." It will mark a new beginning for both this great new priest and his people. 

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What are the main points of By the Waters of Babylon?

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" rally 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 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. Whether we take heed or not is another matter...

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