The Importance Of Setting In “By The Waters Of Babylon”

Stephen Vincent Benet’s short story “By the Waters of Babylon”, is very much a story about setting. The setting of the story is initially described as if it were thousands of years in the past, but the reader soon realizes that this setting actually takes place in the near future in a post-apocalyptic New York City. The world was destroyed by an event, which reduced all of humanity to living like a caveman. Scenic descriptions were used to establish and investigate this tragic fate.

By the Waters of Babylon’s timing is crucial to the story’s final outcome. It seems from the exposition that John’s Hill People practice hunting and angling skills similar to those of thousands of centuries ago. They use a very formal English and are governed by strict religious beliefs that dictate how they act and think. The way they get food is by hunting, fishing, using bows and arrows and cooking their meals over fire. These are not practices that we see very often today. John notices a few buildings with names on them, like one with the words “UBTREAS”, (581) which is part subtreasury. It is likely that the New York Subtreasury sign was also destroyed. This gives an indication of what has happened. John describes the building in which he was “many steps” that made him “dizzy” (583). The reader is informed that John lives in a high-rise apartment or building. There are no people, or what the author calls “god[s]/demon[s]” (581) present. This tells the reader the previous inhabitants of the building died in the “Great Burning”. It is also the distance between John’s place and the Dead Place that gives the story its mysterious feel. John’s daring to cross the river is a clue that the setting of the story has been established. It sounds similar to the Hudson River, which runs around New York City. John’s home is likely to be somewhere along the Hudson, either in northern New Jersey, the Poconos area, or Southern New York. John is amazed when he crosses into the “Place of the Gods,” (580), by the huge buildings. He says that the city is “dotted” with high-rises (581), as many were likely destroyed during the “Great Burning”. These buildings create a dangerous environment, since they can easily fall on him and cause his death. The setting is more lively because he sees the return of many natural elements, like butterflies and fish. He uses his religious perspective to explain the place. Many buildings are referred to as temples. Statues of American heroes are referred as unknown gods. For example, the statue he calls “ASHING”,(581) is a statue from New York that resembles a god. After the Great Burning, the statue was left in ruins by someone or something.

John travels through many strange places. He describes “passing by many Dead Places”, (578), and “god-roads”, (580), along the way. These are simply a strange interpretation of asphalt. These are probably abandoned places from the “Great Burning”, 580. His fascination with modern technology leads him to think that it has some sort of magical power. His final destination also has an unusual name, “a Place for The Gods” (581). These are the old human civilizations.

This short story’s setting is important because it helps to convey the idea that the story takes place after an apocalypse. The area of the city gives the reader an idea as to why it is so dilapidated. New York City, a big city, would be an obvious target for a calamity. The clues that give the location and date of the story can also provide hints on what a destroyed society might have been like.

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