LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Why I Do Not Consider The Water-Babies a Work of Children’s Literature

on January 24, 2013 12:35pm


It is well-documented that Charles Kingsley wrote The Water-Babies for his youngest son in 1863. While one of his goals was to instill a moral theme, the Golden Rule, for his child to abide by, I, for one, do not think that children should be the intended audience for this text. I feel this way because the text is rife with contradictions and assumptions. The majority of children are unable to garner the true meaning of this text by simply reading the words.

Contradiction seems to be the most observable theme of this text. While it causes chaos from the reader’s end, it is only stabilized by the very neutrality of Tom’s character. There are contradictions of evolution versus Christianity, and influences of good and evil, all of which are complete oppositions. The contradictions presented are more subtextual than overt. For example, the whole world of “water-babies” can be interpreted as a metaphor for an afterlife, yet within the afterlife, the creatures are subjects to evolution. I, for one, do not believe religion and science can coexist because they challenge each other.   Also, Mr. Grimes, Tom’s master, is a malicious figure who seems to indoctrinate Tom with a sense of “evil is right”. However, while Tom’s mind is still malleable, he encounters the Irishwoman, an amalgamation of different characters in one, who represents themes of goodness and purity. These ‘lessons’ are subjected to Tom, who is a perfect example of a tabula rasa, a blank slate, because his unique upbringing caused him to be a perfectly unadulterated figure.


Kingsley takes a very unusual and questionable position in this text. He assumes that the reader is ‘untouched’ and liberated from ‘commitment’.  That’s very rare to find at his time period, because most children are indoctrinated, in a sense,  to be committed to some ideology, mostly Christianity.  For example, as he narrates the story, he speculates about mere existence. He mentions that anything conceivable that is not visible or tangible, cannot be dismissed or that it cannot be contrary to Nature.  Judging solely off this, it seems as if this text was perfectly written for an Agnostic, which practically a very infinitesimal amount of children are aware of that word or the meaning of it. While I strongly agree that children are very efficient at questioning, they are incapable of deep introspection and contemplation of lifelong questions.


It is because of Kingsley’s wide use of contradiction and assumption, that this text cannot be classified as children’s literature.  While I appreciate the equal level of deliverance of Christianity versus evolution, I feel that both are subjects that are more appropriate for a certain maturity for appropriate contemplation and evaluation. This text seems very thought-provoking for an adolescent or adult because of the grander meaning of the text instead of what is physically written. That is why I feel this text is best classified under speculative fiction, because of its combinatorial essence of scientific elements and supernatural aspects.



2 responses to “Why I Do Not Consider The Water-Babies a Work of Children’s Literature

  1. bgugliemino says:

    While I do agree that The Water-Babies is not really an ideal children’s book, I disagree with several of the reasons you give for this opinion. Your first reason for dismissing this work as a children’s book is the presence of contradictions that cause “chaos from the reader’s end.” While Kingsley does deal with many contradictions that were major issues in society at the time, I don’t think they cause chaos in the text. In fact, I think Kingsley does his best in several instances to propose a reconciliation of conflicting ideas. One of the best examples of this is his attempt to reconcile evolution with religion in Mother Carey’s statement that “anyone can make things, if they will take time and trouble enough: but it is not everyone who, like me, can make things make themselves” (Kingsley 155). While I agree that these are probably not the best contradictions to be dealing with in a children’s book, the mere presence of contradictions is not a reason to entirely discount the book as children’s literature.

    Another point you make that I disagree with is the idea that Tom represents a blank slate. While that may have been so at his birth, at the point that the story opens Tom has been shaped by the general neglect of his upbringing and his treatment by Grimes. It is the behaviors he has learned from this treatment that have to be overwritten during his time as a water-baby. His repeated relapses into his old behavior during his journey are evidence enough that he is not a blank slate at all. I’m also not sure where your argument that Kingsley assumes the reader is “‘untouched’ and liberated from ‘commitment’” is coming from, is there somewhere specific in the text that you are drawing that from?

    Finally, you argue that the text seems to be “perfectly written for an Agnostic” and that children would not be aware of the meaning behind this. While both of those arguments may be true, I again do not feel that this is a good reason for children not to read the book. It is not at all necessary to have any knowledge of Agnosticism to read the book or to understand the specific digressions in the text that you are referring to. Overall, as I said in the beginning, I agree that this is probably not a good children’s book, but I feel that the reasons you provide do not sufficiently support that assertion.

    • dkamauf says:

      I disagree with the points you made. You said that YOU don’t think contradiction causes chaos in the text. That’s your opinion and you’re open to defend it, but I do not agree. Your example of his ‘best contradiction’ does not have enough substance at all to claim that it doesn’t cause chaos. Your selection was very vague and without proper context to consider it seriously. What is a child going to think when they encounter two conflicting aspects of a story? They aren’t capable of deciphering the difference without some form of prior knowledge or exhaustive research. Secondly, I did actually refer to the specific part of the text where Kingsley assumes the reader is liberated from commitment when I said, “He mentions that anything conceivable that is not visible or tangible, cannot be dismissed or that it cannot be contrary to Nature.” Kingsley wouldn’t say that unless the reader were not bound to an ideology, namely Christian indoctrination, which was unfortunately rampant at that time period. It’s as if Kingsley isn’t taking a side one way or another and assumes the reader to be similar in that regard. Lastly, I disagree when you said, “it is not necessary to have any knowledge of Agnosticism to read the book or to understand specific digressions in the text that you are referring to”. I can bet that a very, very small amount of children are able to contemplate the digressions I referred to. What child do you know has any understanding of Evolutionary Biology or Agnosticism? Those are subjects to be learned once children achieve greater intelligence and maturity.

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