The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

In a wealthy estate in the North Country of England, an abusive chimney sweeper, Mr. Grimes, sends his mischievous apprentice, Tom, into a chimney. The boy becomes lost in a labyrinth of interconnected tunnels and eventually exits through the fireplace in a little girl’s bedroom, where he sees (for the first time in his life) pictures of Jesus Christ. The girl, Ellie, wakes up suddenly and screams, prompting Tom to flee through a window. He makes his way to a neighboring town, to the house of the local schoolteacher, who gives him food and a place to sleep. That night, Tom sleepwalks to a stream and in effect drowns himself. In a symbolic baptism, he washes out of his soot-covered body and becomes a water-baby among the fairies.

During the next phase of his transformation, Tom plays in the country stream, tormenting crabs and other water creatures. A storm comes, causing the stream to swell, and Tom follows the other creatures out to sea, where he eventually encounters Ellie and Professor Ptthmllnsprts fishing on the shore. After Tom escapes from their net, Ellie falls and hits her head on a rock. A week later, the fairies carry her away. Meanwhile, Tom discovers a school of water-babies. They introduce him to Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, who punishes him for his cruelty to the sea creatures. Later, he meets Madame Doasyouwouldbedoneby, a loving surrogate mother. He steals her candy, however, and his guilt causes prickles to grow on his body. Finally, he is...

(The entire section is 451 words.)

Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby is an English Victorian fairy tale that traces the progress of little Tom, a chimney sweep, from a world of filth, poverty, and abuse to an aquatic fantasy world in which he eventually becomes physically and spiritually clean. The first two chapters present Tom’s hard life in the North Country of nineteenth century England. The remaining six chronicle his adventures in the world of the water-babies. While the story itself is told from a third-person omniscient point of view, the narrator continually addresses his young readers directly. “Once upon a time,” he begins, “there was a little chimney-sweep, and his name was Tom. That is a short name, and you have heard it before, so you will not have much trouble remembering it.” Since Kingsley originally wrote The Water-Babies for his youngest child, Grenville, it is not surprising that this parent-to-child approach is maintained throughout. In a playful manner, Kingsley always makes sure that his readers see the point. For example, at the end he states that “we should learn thirty-seven or thirty-nine things” from the tale, but “I am not exactly sure which.” The Water-Babies is essentially a charming fantasy with a serious, consistently developed moral purpose.

The first part of the tale is a sentimental, Dickensian account of a poor orphan facing poverty and danger. Tom’s master, Mr. Grimes, is...

(The entire section is 518 words.)