The Water-Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby

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The Water-Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby is a children's novel by the Reverend Charles Kingsley. Written in 1862–1863 as a serial for Macmillan's Magazine, it was first published in its entirety in 1863. The book was extremely popular in England during its day, and was a mainstay of British children's literature through the 1920s.

Contents

The story

The protagonist is Tom, a young chimney sweep, who falls into a river after encountering an upper-class girl named Ellie and being chased out of her house. There he dies and is transformed into a "water baby", as he is told by a caddis fly—an insect that sheds its skin—and begins his moral education. The story is thematically concerned with Christian redemption, though Kingsley also uses the book to argue that England treats its poor badly, and to question child labour, among other themes.

Tom embarks on a series of adventures and lessons, and enjoys the community of other water babies once he proves himself a moral creature. The major spiritual leaders in his new world are the fairies Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby, Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, and Mother Carey. Weekly, Tom is allowed the company of Ellie, who had fallen into the river after he did.

Grimes, his old master, drowns as well, and in his final adventure, Tom travels to the end of the world to attempt to help the man where he is being punished for his misdeeds. Tom helps Grimes to find repentance, and Grimes will be given a second chance if he can successfully perform a final penance. By proving his willingness to do things he does not like, if they are the right things to do, Tom earns himself a return to human form, and becomes "a great man of science" who "can plan railways, and steam-engines, and electric telegraphs, and rifled guns, and so forth". He and Ellie are united, although the book makes clear that they never marry.

Interpretation

In the style of Victorian-era novels, The Water-Babies is a didactic moral fable. In it, Kingsley expresses many of the common prejudices of that time period, and the book includes dismissive or insulting references to Americans,[1] Jews,[2] blacks,[3] and Catholics[4] particularly the Irish.[5][6] These views may have played a role in the book's gradual fall from popularity.

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