Magill’s Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature The Water-Babies Analysis
A complex and elusive novel, The Water-Babies (subtitled A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby) attempts to reconcile scientific learning with Christian faith. In this respect it is like many other nineteenth century novels, including George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-1872) and Edwin Abbott’s Flatland (1884). Charles Kingsley, a clergyman, uses fantasy as a vehicle for affirming the value of faith in the unseen, especially in a God who can make anything, including water-babies. He mocks scientists who do not believe in fairies as well as Christians who fear science’s potential for destroying faith, and he suggests that people should be imaginative and open-minded to all possibilities. At one point in the novel, Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid says, “Folks say now that I can make beasts into men, by circumstance, and selection, and competition, and so forth. Well, perhaps they are right; and perhaps, again, they are wrong.” Kingsley does not deny the possibility of evolution but instead credits God for evolution, if it occurs, and is careful to distinguish between humans as they are now and the animals. Whether it is the “hippopotamus major” in the human brain or the faculty of imagination that makes people something more than animals, humans have been singled out by God to be nature’s engineers, the caretakers of creation.
The concept of evolution organizes and permeates the novel, from the mention of Charles Darwin in...
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Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series The Water-Babies Analysis
The Water-Babies explicitly informs its young readers that there are serious problems to be faced in the world: poverty, abuse, and death among them. The work’s exploration of these unpleasant subjects reveals its author’s commitment, as an Anglican clergyman and Christian Socialist, to the spiritual and physical well-being of his fellow humans in an age when England was in the midst of its sometimes troubling transformation into the first industrialized nation in Europe with a colonial empire that stretched around the world. The Water-Babies also assures its readers, however, that there are solutions to these problems. The primary one is the individual’s difficult but necessary development into an adult who is both spiritually pure and morally aware of his or her responsibility to others—even those whom one may, with good reason, find reprehensible. Thus, as the work progressively makes clear, Tom cannot really grow up until his moral choices come from an inner sense of what is right, rather than from fear of reprisal—however just—from Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, and until he can learn to care about Mr. Grimes, the one whom he hates and fears the most.
In addition to its major emphasis on the process of redemption, The Water-Babies also assures children of the continuing presence of God in the natural world. From childhood, Kingsley had been an avid naturalist, and his tale shows his intimate knowledge and love of the creatures of the streams and seashores of England. The book abounds not only in a variety of species but also in...
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The Water-Babies marked the beginning of a golden age of fantasy writing in English literature. It was the first of a series of fantasies offering not only an escape from the ugly complexity of adult life but also a fully realized alternate world. Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871), however, create such a place far more successfully than Charles Kingsley’s book does. Other works in this tradition include George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind (1871), James M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1903), and A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh (1926). Though these works have retained their popularity more successfully than The Water-Babies, Kingsley’s tale still has its readers, although their number grows smaller each year.
Kingsley’s writing for children was not confined to The Water-Babies. Glaucus: Or, The Wonders of the Shore (1855), for example, is a guidebook to natural wonders that Kingsley put to good use later in The Water-Babies. The Heroes: Or, Greek Fairy Tales for My Children (1856) is a competent retelling of Greek legends. His other works include Hereward the Wake (1866), and Madame How and Lady Why (1870).
John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684) is clearly an important influence on The Water-Babies, particularly in the paralleling of physical and moral journeys. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) was also influential. In fact, in the last chapter, Tom visits Swift’s Isle of Laputa.
The Water-Babies is still worth reading—for the fascinating details of aquatic life, the wonderful characters, the work’s overall spirit of fun, and even its moral.