LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

The Water Babies: A Guidebook for the Growing Gentleman

on January 24, 2013 11:43am

In The Water Babies, Charles Kingsley writes to children, particularly boys, about the story of Tom and his decisions in life that ultimately cause him to become a well-rounded and good adult. Kingsley instructs children through the utilization of many small lessons, which can be found throughout the book. For each encounter that Tom faces, there is a simple lesson to be learned for young boys.

In analyzing The Water Babies as a teaching tool, it is important to note that Kingsley wrote this story for a particular age group in the early 1860’s. Featured in Macmillan’s Magazine, this children’s story was an educational piece directed to Kingsley’s main audience: children. However, it is obvious that young girls are not included in this audience because Tom is a boy and his adventures are similar to situations that young British boys would likely encounter.

As for the actual lessons, Kingsley cleverly puts them in the text through Tom’s encounters with people and animals. For example, one of the first morals in the story involves religious salvation. The Irishwoman teaches Tom that those who wish to be clean will be. In this case, Kingsley is writing about the necessity of young boys to have the right heart that seeks to be spiritually clean. The feeling of wanting to be clean will enable them to reach salvation, just as it did Tom, who then left his fleshly body behind and became a water baby.

Another notable lesson is where Tom saves his lobster friend from a trap. This unselfish act of kindness is the trigger that allows Tom to see the other water-babies because it is necessary for Tom to have the right attitude. The lesson for young men is to do good to others in order to be a proper gentleman.

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Tom helping the lobster out of a trap.

A third lesson to be noted is when Tom must help Grimes, his mortal enemy, in order to become a human man again. The moral is simple because Kingsley is admonishing young men to help all people and have the right attitude to them, regardless of who they are and how many flaws they may have. Only when Tom realizes this can he have the chance as a totally grown and mature man.

Therefore, the obvious audience for this story when it was written was young British boys. However, since it’s creation in 1863, both the adults and children have changed drastically. Now, parents are not likely reading The Water Babies to their young children. Instead, the audience of this piece of children’s literature is for academic scholars, including university students. It appears that The Water Babies is important to analyze because of the many themes associated with it. Also, Kingsley was one of the very first authors to come up with this particular type of literature and much can be gleaned from studying his writing methods. Thus, the audience of The Water Babies changes as time moves on.

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