LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

The Water Babies: Tom’s Coming of Age

on January 23, 2013 7:21pm

An interesting diagram that can be interpreted as the wavering nature of coming-of-age.

In our lives, we grow, develop, and mature both mentally and physically every day in a variety of ways. Because of this, readers of literature naturally gravitate towards works focusing upon character development and evolution. A particular sub-genre, the coming-of-age story, usually chronicles a young boy or girl as they face external and internal conflicts and how those develop and mature their personalities and world-views. In Kingsley’s The Water-Babies, our protagonist Tom morphs into a water-baby and learns more about his faults and how to correct them over the course of the story, and by the conclusion both literally and figuratively transforms into an adult.

When Tom begins his journey, his demeanor reflects a quintessentially immature young boy, reflected by his habits of agitating innocent animals, prioritizing himself over others, and disobeying the rules of his adult figures. In most coming-of-age stories, the protagonist gradually learns how to sympathize, understand, and rationalize. Although Tom’s maturity slowly grows, he tends to retreat back to his poor behaviors, even after experiencing pivotal moments in his life. Early in the story, Tom initially fails to find any other water babies. After saving a lobster from a fisherman’s trap, the water babies greet him and introduce him to their home and adult figures, who congratulate him upon his refined sense of empathy. However, later in the story Tom steals sweets from Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, (a loving, generous adult figure) a clear sign that he has yet to truly mature. This regression indicates the difference between Kingsley’s coming-of-age story and the multitude of stories written by other authors; Kingsley suggests Tom cannot mature through one event and must continue to compromise morality in order to truly reach a point of complete ethical sensibility.

Who could steal from this loving woman?!

Another interesting difference in Kingsley’s coming-of-age story is how Tom ultimately matures as an adult. In most coming-of-age stories, a conflict’s conclusion that naturally occurs within the story serves as the impetus for the protagonist’s realizations and subsequent maturation. For Tom, he is ordered to save Mr. Grimes in order to grow from a boy into a man. Although he saves Mr. Grimes and learns more about himself and his capability to empathize, the fact that it was a dictated rite-of-passage from one of his adult figures diminishes the impact of his growth and implies that Tom would have never developed unless placed under the guidance of an adult figure. He also literally becomes a full-grown man at the conclusion of the story, a not-so-subtle indication from Kingsley that Tom has indeed matured. Most coming-of-age stories usually have the child only figuratively mature, but Kingsley probably included the detail to make the premise more apparent to younger readers.

In the end he gets the girl!

Overall, Kingsley’s unique approach to the coming-of-age story through Tom showcases a respectable understanding of the sub-genre and serves as a fitting guideline for children and parents alike.

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3 responses to “The Water Babies: Tom’s Coming of Age

  1. I like the connections you have made here where you point out Kingsley’s divergence from the quintessential Christian standards of Great Britain during this era. I believe that although Kingsley was a preacher, he is commonly characterized as a man who mocked the notion, on either side of the argument, that science and religion could not work as one. Kingsley’s acceptance of all people into heaven, granted they pay their due, is a direct contrast to the “fire and brimstone” type theology which dominated religion during the time period when The Water Babies was written. I believe this is a testament to Kingsley’s own personal view of religion. It seems that the author cared more for the justifiable moral lessons religion imparts upon humanity, rather than its use as an adamant “roadmap to salvation.” As with all issues regarding the afterlife, the sheer enormity surrounding the enigma of life after death is enough to scare any human into following a strict set of guidelines to escape damnation. The fact that Kingsley, as a preacher, directly challenges the Church’s authority regarding how a person can be accepted into heaven is a credit to why this book is worthy of critical acclaim. This author chose to question the most engrained belief structure the world has ever known, and he did so in the most unthreatening way possible: through a children’s tale. The overall moral of the story teaches children the fundamental values which Christianity is based upon, but blatantly disregards the rules it imposes upon its followers. He teaches children about love and caring through Ellie’s giving nature. He touches on the importance of compassion and forgiveness through Tom’s trials. He even warns children that they must pay a price for their sins through the fate of Mr. Grimes. Yet he does all of this without demanding they sign a staunch contract that claims all other religions and ways of life as evil. Kingsley’s religion was pure and simple: Doasyouwouldbedoneby and you will Bedonebyasyoudid.

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