By the Waters of Babylon Themes
by Stephen Vincent Benét

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By the Waters of Babylon Themes

Societal Collapse and Regeneration

This story 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, Benet warns, if we don't handle our technology wisely. We can blow ourselves back to a Stone Age culture and have to begin again 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.

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 no questioning or soul-searching about whether replicating the same culture will replicate the same disaster.

The Power of the Individual

The narrator travels alone to the Dead Place, risking death, and single-handedly brings back knowledge that can change his culture. One extraordinary individual (even, if like the narrator, they have no idea they are extraordinary) can change everything. This is the "great man" theory of history, and while today we might question it as naive, the story accepts its simple trajectory without question.

Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Originally titled “The Place of the Gods,” this Stephen Vincent Benét story initially seems to be set in an unspecified, early period of American Indian history. It is, however, actually a prophetic warning of dread future possibilities. Although modern people’s almost magical powers have allowed them to harness electricity and nuclear power, build subways and elevators, drive cars, fly planes, and create washers and driers, electric stoves, and refrigerators, Benét warns that people must still learn to control the savages in themselves that lead to war and annihilation.

The forbidden river of the story, with its “bitter waters,” is the Hudson River (“Oudis-sun”); the “god-roads” are complex highway systems; the door with no handles is an elevator entrance; “ubtreas” is the “Subtreasury”; the statue of “ashing” is of George Washington, and the other great men are Abraham Lincoln, Moses, and, ironically, Biltmore (reflecting the grandeur of the Biltmore Hotel); the “chariots” of the vision are cars and trucks; the magic torches are electric lights; the falling fire that causes the “Great Burning” and the poisonous mist is from a super bomb, and the resultant fallout causes radiation poisoning. This past civilization is thus present-day civilization; present-day people are the dead whose secrets the Hill People seek.

Writing two years before World War II began, with a sure sense of the destructiveness of World War I and a fear of the new technological might that would be unleashed in a second world war, Benét envisions the possibility of people bombing themselves back to the Stone Age. Before the fire-bombing of Dresden or the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Benét looked into the human heart and read there...

(The entire section is 839 words.)