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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By the Waters of Babylon Themes

The three main themes in “By the Waters of Babylon” are societal collapse and regeneration, the superiority of modern Western civilization, and the power of the individual.

  • Societal collapse and regeneration: The story is set in a world where modern civilization has collapsed, but Benet also indicates that civilization can, and should, be rebuilt.
  • The superiority of modern Western civilization: Benet’s story, published in 1937, takes for granted the superiority of the society represented by the Dead Places.
  • The power of the individual: John travels alone to one of the Dead Places and singlehandedly recovers lost knowledge for his community.

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

Societal Collapse and Regeneration

“By the Waters of Babylon” is as much a cautionary tale for the reader as it is a quest tale about a young man learning truths concerning a lost civilization. This same disaster can happen to us, Benét warns, if we don’t handle our technology wisely. With our advanced weapons, we can blow ourselves back to a Stone Age culture and have to begin again nearly from scratch. Taking a page from the way the Middle Ages preserved and then reclaimed the knowledge of the classical world, however, the story also imparts absolute confidence that the old civilization can be built again and communicates the message that doing so is worthwhile. Benét writes in the story’s final paragraph,

Nevertheless, we make a beginning. . . . They were men who were here before us. We must build again.

The Superiority of Modern Western Civilization

This 1937 story has none of the questioning of our technological society that has become common in the post-Holocaust, post-Hiroshima, post–World War II world. Today, many recognize how much there is to learn, especially about living sustainably, from Indigenous or Native cultures. In this story, however, there is simply a clear binary opposition between the narrator’s “primitive” culture and the assumed vastly “superior” culture that the Dead Places represent. There is nothing but eagerness to attain this civilization again and little questioning or soul-searching about whether replicating the same culture will replicate the same disaster. The only hint of hesitation comes from John’s father, who cautions John about telling the rest of the Hill People the truth about the gods too quickly:

I told and he listened. After that, I wished to tell all the people but he showed me otherwise. He said, “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. I have learned that, being a priest. Perhaps, in the old days, they ate knowledge too fast.

Still, John reports that the Hill People now search the Dead Places not only for metal but for books and that they wonder at the “magic tools” of their forebears. When he is chief priest, he says, he will lead a company of men to the Place of the Gods and begin to recreate the old civilization.

The Power of the Individual

John travels alone to the Place of the Gods, risking death, and single-handedly brings back knowledge that can change his culture. One extraordinary individual (even, if like John, they have no idea they are extraordinary) can change everything. This is the “great man” theory of history, and while today we might regard it as naive or problematic, the story accepts its simple trajectory without question. John’s status as an apprentice priest sets him apart from his brothers, who are not named or described except as “good hunters” who would not have touched the metal of the Dead Places as John did; John’s burning curiosity about the world and dreams of the Place of the Gods further set him apart from the other priests. He is even granted a vision of New York as it once was when he sleeps in the dead-house. For all these reasons, John can be considered an archetypal “chosen one” figure, a singular person destined to change the world.

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