The Importance of Setting in “By the Waters of Babylon”

In the short story, “By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benet, setting is a very important element of how the story is portrayed. Although readers are introduced to a setting that feels like thousands of years ago, the reader later figures out that the setting is actually taking place sometime in the future during a post-apocalyptic era in New York City. An event that destroyed the world reduced the remaining members of civilization to living like cavemen, and scenic descriptions emerge as a powerful means of establishing and investigating this dark fate.

The timing of “By the Waters of Babylon” is very important to how this story progresses in the end. In the exposition of the story, it seems that the Hill People with whom John lives practiced hunting and fishing skills as that of sometime thousands of years ago. Their use of the English language is very formal, and their strict religious beliefs control how they think and do things. Their ways of getting food include hunting and fishing with the use of bow and arrow, and preparing their meals by a fire, which is not practiced very often in modern times. John notices some buildings that have names such as the one that has “UBTREAS” (581) written on it, which was part of the word subtreasury. The sign for the New York Subtreasury must have been destroyed in the event. This gives the reader a hint about what had happened. John describes a building he is in with “many stairs” that turned “around until [his] head was dizzy” (583). This informs the reader that John is in some type of high rise apartment, or building. Although in good shape, there are no people or what they call “god[s] or demon[s]” (581) present, informing the reader that the people who lived there died from the “Great Burning” (576) and John is living sometime after the apocalypse.

The place of this story is also very important to how this story progresses. The distance from where John lives to the Dead Place also gives the story a mysterious atmosphere. Although the reader has no clue of the setting in the beginning, one of the first clues in the story is the name of the river that John dares to cross. He calls it the “Ou-dis-sun, the Sacred, the Long” (579), and it sounds very much like the the Hudson, which is around New York City. John probably lives somewhere West of the river, somewhere in the Poconos, northern New Jersey, or southern New York. John crosses over into the “Place of the Gods” (580) and is amazed by its buildings “that [are] too big to be houses” (579). He describes the city sprinkled with high rises “here and there” (581) as most were probably destroyed in the “Great Burning” (576). These buildings give the story a dangerous atmosphere, as they could easily fall and kill him. He sees many parts of nature that have come back to the city, such as fish and butterflies, which give the setting a more vibrant atmosphere. He explains the place from his point of view which is religiously based, so he explains many buildings as temples, and statues of great American heroes as unknown gods. For example he recognizes the statue of a god, “ASHING”(581), but it is really a statue of George Washington in New York. The statue was destroyed by something and left abandoned by the people after the Great Burning.

John passes many odd places along his journey. He describes that he “passes by many Dead Places” (578) and he sees many “god-roads” (580) along the way, which are just a weird interpretation of modern asphalt. The Dead Places are just abandoned places that were probably part of the “Great Burning” (580). He is intrigued by many modern day things, and that causes him to believe that they have some magical use. His final destination is also unusual because he refers to it as “a Place for the Gods” (580) who are actually the past human civilization.

The setting of this short story is very important to how this story is written, because it is part of the central idea that this took place after the apocalypse. The city area gives the reader a hint on why the area is so dilapidated. A large city like New York City would be a target for an apocalyptic event. The clues that hint to where and when the story takes place also gives the reader hints about what could have happened to a society that was destroyed.