By the Waters of Babylon


Stephen Vincent Benét

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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

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…

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The Coming of Age Quest

The story’s narrative centers on the journey that John takes to the Place of the Gods as part of his initiation into manhood and the tribe’s priesthood. John’s journey is a good example of the “hero’s quest,” an archetypal story arc that is common in both ancient myths and modern stories. The “coming-of-age” journey of the hero’s quest often contains certain archetypal elements, and John’s journey has many of these. These elements include time spent…

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Superstition, Magic, and Technology

Benét portrays the Hill People as superstitious by showing John’s firm belief in the power of visions and his willingness to follow unexplained traditions, laws and taboos. John’s tribe has many traditions and taboos, which John often also calls “laws.” Though John implies that there are valid reasons and histories behind these laws, he does not explain them, and it is not clear if he himself knows them. In the opening paragraph of “By…

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Rivalry, War, and Destruction

The rivalry depicted in the story between the Hill People and the Forest People is based on differences that may, at first glance, strike readers as insignificant. Early in the essay, John says, “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.” The apparent triviality of these differences has two important, and related, impacts. First, it…

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