The Water-Babies Essay - Critical Context

Charles Kingsley

Critical Context

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.