LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Tom’s Baptism: Religious Themes and Symbolism in Water Babies

on January 24, 2013 5:22pm

“…and then he heard the Irishwoman saying, “Those that wish to be clean, clean they will be.” And then he heard the church bells ring so loud, close to him, too, that he was sure it must be Sunday, in spite of what the old dame had said; and he would go to church and see what church was like inside, for he had never been to one, poor little fellow, in all his life…He must go to the river and wash first.” And he said out loud again and again, though being half asleep he did not know it, “I must be clean, I must be clean.” (Pg. 30 Kingsley

I chose to do a close reading of this excerpt for it proved to be a pivotal moment in the text with very religiously charged and symbolic themes.  I believe that this excerpt described or represented, for Tom, strong themes of baptism and salvation through Christianity.  In almost all religions and practices within the scope of Christianity, baptism is predominantly performed through the symbolic washing away of sins with water, essentially becoming clean. The definition of baptism as given by the Merriam-Webster dictionary is actually,

“1. A Christian sacrament marked by ritual use of water and admitting the recipient to the Christian community

2. An act, experience, or ordeal by which one is purified, sanctified, initiated, or named.” (

     Multiple times throughout the text Kingsley referenced the fact that Tom was not religious and had not been brought up under a Christian hand, as evidenced when Tom tells the Irishwoman that he knows no prayers to say or, found in the aforementioned excerpt when Kinglsey called Tom a “poor little fellow” for having never been inside a church. (Pg. 30, Kingsley) In this novel it is evident that in order to become the good little Christian and British boy that Tom wants be, he must be saved and initiated into the church.  By Tom repeating again and again, “I must be clean, I must be clean” we know that he wants to be saved, he wants the sinner’s soot that has covered his body his whole life to be washed away, he wants to fulfill the prophecy of the Irishwoman that, “Those that wish to be clean, clean they will be.” (Pg. 30, Kingsley)   Just as in Christianity, those that wished to be saved will be saved even if it is through death.  I believe that when Tom entered the water and fell into “the quietest, sunniest, coziest sleep that ever he had in his life” it was, in actuality, an eternal sleep or death. (Pg. 32, Kingsley)   And it was through this sleep and the washing away of the soot that had blackened his body he was baptized and saved, the religious overtones in this scene are so heavy, not only unmistakably referenced by the water, the wish to be clean, and the sleep Tom entered, but the fact that the closer he got to the stream of deliverance the louder and louder the church bells in his head were ringing, as if he was getting closer and closer to church and God.

    These religious motifs and themes are predominant throughout Tom’s story and are continually alluded to, however, I think a powerful description or evidence of Tom’s true salvation is, near the end of the novel, when he finally reached Mr. Grimes who was toiling away sweeping chimneys without repentance, Tom “was surprised to see that the soot did not stick to his feet, or dirty them in the least.” (Pg. 180, Kingsley) The fact that the chimney’s soot that, during the novel, had been a mark of sin and immorality could not blacken Tom’s feet symbolizes and proves, to me, that Tom has truly been saved. It is through these significant scenes throughout Tom’s story, and especially within the passage of baptism and salvation excerpted above, that we see Tom’s journey is really one of redemption and salvation so he is able to go ‘home with Ellie on Sundays.” (Pg. 188, Kingsley)


2 responses to “Tom’s Baptism: Religious Themes and Symbolism in Water Babies

  1. I was really intrigued by this aspect of the story as well and you’ve made a bunch of really wonderful points. A few other things to think about:

    1. The way that Kingsley chose to describe Tom’s separation from his earthly body was really interesting. So, in Christian doctrine (at least for Catholics and, I believe, Anglicans, which is what Kingsley was) there is the belief that when a person dies and enters the afterlife it is not just his soul that is resurrected, but it is both body and soul. However it’s not the same body that the person had on earth. And this is what Kingsley has done in “The Water-Babies”. He chooses to have Tom lose the “shell” of his body, but when he is transformed underwater and experiences a rebirth or resurrection, he is not merely a spirit or soul, he has a new body. This would thus correspond to the idea of a new body, and through purgatory (which could be a way of viewing Tom’s journey) this new body is purified, rectified, and cleansed of its sins and eventually reaches a glorified state in Heaven with God.

    2. One other thing that jumped out to me from your post that I wanted to run with a bit further is your noticing of that detail about Tom and his inability to allow the dirt from Mr. Grimes’ soot to dirty him. I think that this not only shows that Tom has truly been saved, as you rightly point out, but it also points to another Christian idea which states that once a person has reached heaven (ie he has now been truly saved) he is incapable of thinking about or experiencing anything evil or immoral. Since they are in full communion with God in Heaven, they are no longer able to even take in anything evil, which is represented here, I think, by the soot and dirt of Grimes and Tom’s old way of life.

  2. I really like the idea that you are using religion but check this article about Darwin and 1860s Childrens literature.
    If you can not open it, in google search for murphy darwin children’s literature it should be the first article that appears.
    This article will give you an idea about how nature work and the struggle and conflict in the world. You will learn some aspects of evolution and how is it linked with religion. It will explain you how a corrupted child transform into a more moral person. It contains alot of moral and social lessons.
    The narrator insists that nature is essentially unknowable and that lack
    of empirical proof is no barrier to personal faith: ” But there is no such things as water babies”. Regardless of the evidence of such a thing unknow to science it shows that the world still believe they may exit and if they do you will be surprise what evolution can do if not then we just need a little faith. I really recommend you read that article because the professor showed to us for the presentation and I think people in the class should read it. Well good look and I hope you enjoy the article .

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