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.
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.
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.