By the Waters of Babylon

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The Pursuit of Knowledge Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in By the Waters of Babylon, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
The Pursuit of Knowledge Theme Icon

Benét builds the central narrative of “By the Waters of Babylon” around John’s coming-of-age and his quest for new knowledge, which takes him east to The Place of the Gods, a mysterious, long-abandoned city that members of his tribe are forbidden from visiting.

Benét presents the desire for knowledge as a key aspect of human nature and the driving force behind the development of human society. Further, Benét presents knowledge as something that feeds on itself, and drives those who seek it ever onward. John’s pursuit of knowledge leads him to learn about the Dead Places, travel east to the Ou-dis-san river, enter the Place of the Gods, and discover the dead god in an abandoned apartment building. As John reaches new “levels” of knowledge with each step of his journey, he learns enough to recognize that there is even more to know, which pushes him ever further in his quest.

Benét also shows how knowledge can diminish fear and the power of superstition. John tells us that when he first went with his father (who is a priest) to search for metal in the Dead Places, he was afraid. Yet later, when John knows and understands the Dead Places, he no longer fears them. On his journey, John boasts of his certainty and lack of fear, but when he reaches the Place of the Gods, he feels afraid. The knowledge that he has already acquired no longer diminishes his fear because he is now facing a place he knows almost nothing about.

However, Benét’s story also makes clear that knowledge is no simple thing. Knowledge offers progress but also, because of the progress it offers, it can lead to both personal and societal dangers. On the personal level, John’s father encourages him to heed his visions and make the journey to the Place of the Gods, but also warns John that the dream could “eat him up.” The warning implies that the pursuit of knowledge could become an obsession that overwhelms John, or that the knowledge itself could be something that John is unprepared for or unable to face. On the societal level, the story reveals that the Place of the Gods is actually New York, indicating that the society of the “gods” is our own modern society. John realizes that, ultimately, this modern society was destroyed by its own vast knowledge and power.

When John returns from his quest and wants to tell all of his tribe that the “gods” in newyork were in fact humans, his father convinces him not to, telling him, “If you eat too much truth at once, you may die of the truth.” John’s father theorizes that newyork was destroyed because the gods “ate knowledge too fast”—perhaps a reference to the famous Biblical story of Adam and Eve, who were punished for seeking forbidden knowledge and literally “eating” it in the form of a fruit. Here, then, John’s father expands on his earlier warning that “knowledge” could consume John, and argues that knowledge gained too quickly can “eat up” an entire society. Though John believes that he has returned safely to his tribe (that is, without being consumed) and plans to use his knowledge to “rebuild” human civilization, the story leaves it unclear if he, or his society, will have the wisdom to use their growing knowledge in ways that avoid the mistakes of their ancestors. Benét presents knowledge as a double-edged sword, and by refusing to resolve tension between its simultaneous benefits and dangers, his story warns readers, and society, to use their knowledge well.

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The Pursuit of Knowledge ThemeTracker

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The Pursuit of Knowledge Quotes in By the Waters of Babylon

Below you will find the important quotes in By the Waters of Babylon related to the theme of The Pursuit of Knowledge.
By the Waters of Babylon Quotes

I was taught how to read in the old books and how to make the old writings—it was like a fire in my heart. Most of all, I liked to hear of the Old Days and the stories of the gods. I asked myself many questions that I could not answer, but it was good to ask them. At night, I would lie awake and listen to the wind—it seemed to me that it was the voice of the gods as they flew through the air.

Related Characters: John (speaker)
Page Number: 203-204
Explanation and Analysis:

After the priests discover that John (the son of a priest) can handle metal safely, they take this as a sign that he is meant to become a priest as well and begin to educate him. The priests teach John “magical” and medical skills, and he learns to read and write “the old way.” John’s fascination with the stories of the gods and his belief that the gods speak to him foreshadow his future journey to the Place of the Gods and his vision of the Great Burning. Furthermore, John is not just fascinated by the gods, but by learning itself. John’s desire for new knowledge propels him through the story, motivating him on each step of his coming-of-age quest—and even after its resolution. Throughout the story, John describes his desire for knowledge as a “fire,” and this description recalls the traditional association between fire and knowledge. According to Greek mythology, the titan Prometheus created humans, and then stole fire from the gods and gave the knowledge of how to make fire to humans. He was punished harshly by the gods—and like the myth of Prometheus, Benét’s story warns that human attainment of god-like knowledge usually results in disaster.

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We are not ignorant like the Forest People—our women spin wool on the wheel, our priests wear a white robe. We do not eat grubs from the tree, we have not forgotten the old writings, though they are hard to understand. Nevertheless, my knowledge and my lack of knowledge burned in me—I wished to know more.

Related Characters: John (speaker)
Page Number: 204
Explanation and Analysis:

As he learns the secrets of the priests and studies the “old writings,” John begins to differentiate his own tribe (the Hill People) from the rival Forest People in terms of cultural, religious, and technological differences. Just as the reader likely sees John and his tribe as superstitious and backwards, John sees the Forest People as “ignorant” and therefore inferior to the Hill People. John’s measures of ignorance—eating habits and religious garments—seem arbitrary, however, and the lack of logic behind John’s judgements emphasizes that the value of any practice is culturally relative. What’s more, we can see from our own world that cultural, religious, and technological differences are often sources of conflict between groups of people. By placing such a familiar conflict in an unfamiliar world, Benét suggests that this kind of conflict—like religion and technology themselves—is an intrinsic part of human society.

“This is a very strong dream,” he said. “It may eat you up. […] It is forbidden to travel east. It is forbidden to cross the river. It is forbidden to go to the Place of the Gods. [...] If your dreams do not eat you up, you may be a great priest. If they eat you, you are still my son. Now go on your journey.”

Related Characters: John’s father (speaker), John
Page Number: 204-205
Explanation and Analysis:

As part of John’s initiation as a priest and a man of his tribe, he goes through a ritual led by his father, the head priest. John’s father asks him to look into the smoke of a fire and describe what he sees. His vision, the story implies, will guide the journey he will make as an initiate. In the smoke, John sees the Place of the Gods. His father responds by warning that John’s dream is potentially dangerous and all-consuming, and he reminds John of the tribe’s three taboos banning him from traveling east towards the Place of the Gods; yet he also subtly advises John to go on his journey. Since initiates’ journeys are guided by their visions and their own interpretation of “signs,’ the directive “go on your journey” seems to mean “go to the Place of the Gods, even though it is forbidden to do so.” And this is how John interprets his vision and his father’s words. Within the archetypal hero’s quest, this ceremony can be seen as the threshold between ordinary life and the quest; in this context, John’s father plays the archetypal role of mentor.

If I went to the Place of the Gods, I would surely die, but, if I did not go, I could never be at peace with my spirit again. It is better to lose one’s life than one’s spirit, if one is a priest and the son of a priest.

Related Characters: John (speaker)
Page Number: 206
Explanation and Analysis:

After traveling east for eight days, John reaches the bank of the Ou-dis-san river. He believes that if he crosses it and enters the Place of the Gods, he will die, and he considers turning around. Yet in spite of his overwhelming sense of fear and the prospect of certain death, John decides that he will continue on his quest. John believes that the spirit and body can be separated from one another, and he makes a distinction between spiritual life and the life of the body. Ultimately, he believes, one’s spirit is more important that one’s physical body, and John is willing to sacrifice his life in order to pursue spiritual knowledge and remain true to himself. Furthermore, John says, it is a priest’s duty to do so. Throughout the story, John describes fearlessness as one of the qualities of a true priest, and here he attempts to face death without fear. Though John has not yet discovered the Dead God, he later applies similar language to describe the Dead God, saying he has lost his life but not his spirit.

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.

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 father 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.

Related Characters: John (speaker), John’s father (speaker)
Page Number: 213
Explanation and Analysis:

Returning home, John tells his father that he has visited the Place of the Gods and discovered that the “gods” were humans. John wants to share this knowledge with rest of the tribe, but his father uses this argument to persuade him not to. John’s father uses the metaphor of a man chasing truth like a hunter chases deer to warn John against the dangers of gaining too much knowledge too quickly. “Eating” truth can nourish people, but consuming too much at once can poison them. John, narrating the story some time after this conversation with his father, theorizes that the “gods”—or rather, the humans who lived in the “old days”—consumed too much truth at once. This glut of knowledge, John implies, may have caused the terrible destruction of the Great Burning; the technological and scientific knowledge that allowed humans to build the towers, subways, airplanes, and kitchen appliances also led to the invention of devastating weapons. For the reader, who already lives in a world where kitchen appliances and weapons of mass destruction exist, Benét warns that we should use the knowledge we possess cautiously and pursue new knowledge with care.

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.