Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 523
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 chapter 2 to Tom’s metamorphosis into an adult in the last chapter. Structurally, The Water-Babies follows several patterns, including those of sin-confession-penance, ablution-absolution, and birth-death-rebirth. Another pattern is evolution. In the course of the narrative, Tom not only regresses into a baby (a play on devolution) but also evolves from “a jolly little black ape” into “a great man of science.” Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid tells Tom a hilarious, albeit frightening, story about the Doasyoulikes, a society of people who degrade and dwindle to a single ape descendant as a result of their laziness. Kingsley is, in effect, treating evolution not only as a biological phenomenon but also as a moral principle. Through experiential rather than inculcative education, humans can evolve morally into responsible, compassionate beings. They can also degrade morally, through laziness, into inferior creatures. The choice is for each person to make.
This lesson may be beyond the scope of a child’s understanding. From this novel, a child can learn the importance of compassion and kindness and the necessity of self-sacrifice. Kingsley tries to entertain as well as instruct his young audience, defying (and even censuring) the mid-Victorian distrust of fairy tales. The Water-Babies came to be largely ignored by the late twentieth century because of its intrusive didacticism. Lewis Carroll is partly responsible for its disfavor among modern readers. His more rebellious and secular Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) drowns instruction in nonsense and entertains by default. Reading Kingsley after Carroll is like eating spinach after ice cream. Kingsley’s novel, however, deserves credit for its whimsy and satire. It is a heartfelt and imaginative protest against the dull reading material that Victorians forced on their children in schools and nurseries, and it has intrigued and delighted several generations of children.
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