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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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

The god who lived there must have been a powerful god. The first room was a small ante-room—I waited there for some time, telling the spirits of the place that I came in peace and not as a robber. When it seemed to me that they had had time to hear me, I went on. Ah, what riches! Few, even, of the windows had been broken—it was all as it had been. The great windows that looked over the city had not been broken at all though they were dusty and streaked with many years. There were coverings on the floors, the colors not greatly faded, and the chairs were soft and deep.

When the young narrator, John, comes to the Dead Place, he explores a skyscraper and is awed at what he finds. Benét employs dramatic irony: we as readers know what he is seeing, and it seems somewhat ordinary to us, but to the narrator it is a place of wonder.

When gods war with gods, they use weapons we do not know. It was fire falling out of the sky and a mist that poisoned. It was the time of the Great Burning and the Destruction. They ran about like ants in the streets of their city—poor gods, poor gods! Then the towers began to fall. A few escaped—yes, a few. The legends tell it. But, even after the city had become a Dead Place, for many years the poison was still in the ground. I saw it happen, I saw the last of them die. It was darkness over the broken city and I wept.

The narrator has a vision of the nuclear war or holocaust that destroyed the beings he stills thinks of as gods, leaving radiation (“poison”) behind.

—I knew then that they had been men, neither gods nor demons. It is a great knowledge, hard to tell and believe. They were men—they went a dark road, but they were men.

The narrator finds the corpse of a man and realizes that it was not gods who occupied the city, but ordinary mortals. This is the most important revelation of the story, for it means that if humans built the great city, it is possible for the people left behind to attain such greatness again.

“Truth is a hard deer to hunt. If you eat too much truth at once, you may die of the truth. It was not idly that our fathers forbade the Dead Places.” He was right—it is better the truth should come little by little.

The young man returns, eager to impart his knowledge that the Dead Places were built by humans, not gods. His father advises him to reveal the truth slowly so as not to destabilize his own culture. The young man understands that. Rather than reveal the truth all at once, he has his people study and learn from the old civilization with the hope of rebuilding it.

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