By the Waters of Babylon

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The Dead God Character Analysis

John finds the well-preserved body of the “dead god” seated at a window in one of the towers in the Land of the Gods. John soon realizes that the dead god is not a god at all, but a dead man, and that the “gods” were in fact humans. John tells us that the dead god’s face looks both wise and sad, and theorizes that though he lost his life, he chose to stay in the city so as not to lose his spirit too.

The Dead God Quotes in By the Waters of Babylon

The By the Waters of Babylon quotes below are all either spoken by The Dead God or refer to The Dead God. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Pursuit of Knowledge Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of By the Waters of Babylon published in 1999.
By the Waters of Babylon Quotes

He had sat at his window, watching his city die—then he himself had died. But it is better to lose one’s life than one’s spirit—and you could see from the face that his spirit had not been lost. I knew that, if I touched him, he would fall into dust—and yet, there was something unconquered in the face.
That is all of my story, for then I knew he was a man—I knew then that they had been men, neither gods nor demons.

Related Characters: John (speaker), The Dead God
Page Number: 213
Explanation and Analysis:

The morning after his vision, John searches the apartment for clues that might further explain the Great Burning, and he enters a room he did not explore the night before. There, he finds the body of the Dead God seated in a chair by the window. John describes the Dead God’s face using language that he previously used while recounting his own decision to cross the Ou-dis-san river and enter the Place of the Gods. John continued his journey based on the rationale that “it is better to lose one’s life than one’s spirit,” and he repeats that phrase here. Throughout the story, John has attempted to become truly fearless, but never quite succeeded; always the fear returns, and his fearlessness becomes an act of bravado. Yet the Dead God appears to have faced death and the destruction of his city without fear; his peaceful face is the embodiment of John’s notion of fitting “priestly” behavior. In finding the Dead God, then John makes the greatest and final discovery of his quest: the “gods” were humans. Within the archetype of the hero’s quest, this knowledge can be described as John’s “reward,” with which he will return home. Like any “hero,” John’s quest and the knowledge he acquires during the quest transforms him; on the journey home, he is amazed to find that he fears nothing.


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And, when I am chief priest we shall go beyond the great river. We shall go to the Place of the Gods—the place newyork—not one man but a company. We shall look for the images of the gods and find the god ASHING and the others—the gods Licoln and Biltmore and Moses. 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. We must build again.

Related Characters: John (speaker), The Dead God
Page Number: 213
Explanation and Analysis:

In spite of the fact that John agrees not to tell the Hill People about his journey to the Place of the Gods and his claim to recognize the dangers of “eating” knowledge too quickly, John plans to take the tribe to the Place of the Gods after his father’s death. Over the course of the story, John gradually breaks the tribes’ many taboos; he travels East, he crosses the river, he looks upon the Place of the Gods, and then enters it. Here, in the story’s final paragraph, he breaks the last taboo that was named in the story’s first paragraph: he speaks the name of the Place of the Gods. In doing so, he confirms for readers that the Place of the Gods is indeed New York City, or “newyork.” More importantly, John leaves the old laws of the tribe and his formerly obedient and “superstitious” self behind. We can infer that the tribe itself is changing too; John’s quest has ushered in a new era, and the old laws no longer apply.

Notably, John’s realization that the “gods” who built “newyork” were in fact humans has not ended his belief in gods; rather, he is scouring books to find new gods, suggesting that it is human nature to look to a deity or deities to explain the events of our world. We can assume that ASHING is George Washington and “Licoln” is Abraham Lincoln, and we know that neither of these men were gods, nor were Biltmore (a hotel) or Moses (a Biblical prophet who led the Hebrews out of exile in Egypt). John’s misreading of the texts he has gathered from the Dead Places suggests he does not know as much as he thinks he does, and he may in fact go on to repeat the mistakes of the past.

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The Dead God Character Timeline in By the Waters of Babylon

The timeline below shows where the character The Dead God appears in By the Waters of Babylon. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
By the Waters of Babylon
The Pursuit of Knowledge Theme Icon
The Coming of Age Quest Theme Icon
Superstition, Magic, and Technology Theme Icon
Rivalry, War, and Destruction Theme Icon
As he explores the apartment, John finds the dead god sitting in a chair by the window, as if he is looking out over the... (full context)