LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Betwixt-and-Between: Peter Pan and The Water-Babies

In reading Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, I was reminded of The Water Babies. Solomon tells Peter that he is a “Betwixt-and-Between” (Barrie17) and it seems to me that in The Water-Babies, Tom is equally stuck being not-quite human.

I think the scene that really made the connection for me though, was the scene with the birds in Peter Pan; it reminded me of the Allfowlsness Island Tom encounters on his journey. On an island of birds – each having their own community and way of life – both protagonists find themselves out of place; Tom is looking to continue on his journey to regain his his humanity and Peter is stuck their after losing his ability to fly.

Thanks for rubbing it in.

Thanks for rubbing it in.


The islands of birds play different yet similar roles as stop-overs on the protagonists journeys of self-growth and development. For starters, both are sanctuaries from humanity. In Water Babies, the petrels tell Tom never to reveal the island’s location “lest men should go there and shoot the birds, and stuff them, and put them into stupid museums…” (Kingsley, 145). Likewise, in Peter Pan, Solomon’s island in Kensington Gardens is only reachable by air: “for the boats of humans are forbidden to land there, and there are stakes around it, standing up in the water, on each of which a bird sentinel sits by day and night” (Barrie, 16).

Seriously, who's giving me a ride?

Seriously, who’s giving me a ride?

The protagonists, stranded, must find a way off of each island. At these points of their respective stories, the protagonists’ goals are the same; both Tom and Peter are – even if not in the same ways – trying to become real humans again. Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately  depending on perspective – only one of the two succeeds in this quest. While Tom regains his humanity and is better of than when he began, Peter is replaced by his family and spends his eternal youth playing in the gardens, perpetually stuck between being an animal and a man.

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Kingsley’s Rebel Yell

Towards the end of Water Babies, Kingsley has Tom dive head first into a land of satire and allegory that seems to come straight out of – and indeed even sites – a Jonathon Swift narrative. These individual scenes are an escalation of the rest of the narrative, and the mix of what can only be described as a mix of Gulliver’s Travels and Dante’s Inferno make for an absurd collection of scenes that deliver his sharpest satire. Kingsley’s tongue-in-cheek tone throughout the story is even more pronounced as he makes not-so-subtle political statements in which – not surprisingly – he makes another anti-American jab. Among the “Pantheon of the Great Unsuccessful” are a diverse group of “failures” from history. These people include people as diverse as the builders of the Tower of Babel and – here it comes – “…(in due time) presidents of the union which ought to have reunited” (Kingsley, 165). This is very obviously a comment on the American Civil War that could only have been more obvious if Kingsley had capitalized the word “Union”. The introduction talked about how Kingsley un-popularly supported the South and slavery, so this line is no surprise, but it is perhaps the most politically pointed example of his anti-American remarks. One is almost invited to picture – “in due time” – Lincoln sitting there to greet and berate Tom on his journey. This line was more than likely cut out of the “politically correct” reprint, but here in the unabridged version, it seems to jump out at the reader with a every ounce of a rebel yell that Kingsley can muster.

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The Water Babies: A Guidebook for the Growing Gentleman

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.

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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Everyone has a Chance for Redemption: Exploring the Afterlife in The Water-Babies


           In The Water-Babies there are extremes in pureness of characters, like Grimes, that master chimney sweep representing almost an absolute evil and, at the other end, Ellie, a child of pure innocence.  Then we have Tom, who is somewhere in the middle as he is a child who has not had any guidance for what is right and wrong morally according to the Christian beliefs of that time.  All of these initially-human characters, despite their innate purity or lack of it, have a chance of redemption once they die, which is quite contrary to the normal Christian belief that only the good and free-of-sin can enter the afterlife.

Starting from the extreme of evil, Grimes is a hateful man who definitely is portrayed as quite the sinner from the very first chapter through his behaviors noted by Tom and the abuse received by Tom, and he is warned by the Irishwoman, who is actually Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, about his “foul” nature (Kingsley 8).  When Grimes falls into the water and is taken by fairies to where he belongs, I assume that this means that he died and was taken either a purgatory or hell because later, he is found by Tom in the Other-end-of Nowhere in a place called Leaveheavenalone, which is definitely not heaven but definitely an afterlife.  Once Tom and Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid help Grimes to realize some of the pain he’s caused, he is freed from that place but only to work in a crater to “work out [his] time” (Kingsley 184).  He has a chance at redemption, but he must first work to earn it after realizing his sins.

Conversely, Ellie is the picturesque angel (and the image is more obvious later when she is given wings), and as an innocent child, it seems like she could just enter into heaven, no problem.  However, even she must pass a sort of pre-heaven trial of a purgatory-like nature before being able to enter.  She had to commit good deeds by first going where did not like to go and help someone who she did not like (Kingsley 127).  After helping Tom become a better person and Christian, she was redeemed and her soul allowed to enter heaven.

Now Tom, a more middle character between good and evil, also had to follow a path similar to Ellie’s in order to be able to be saved.  As a human, Tom did not know right from wrong and committed sins, but he was given a second chance when he desired to be clean and was transformed into a water-baby (like a baptism to start anew).  After being taught to be a good Christian by Ellie and the fairies, he desired entrance to heaven, and so he, too, had to help someone he didn’t like in a place he wouldn’t like.  It was after a long and arduous journey and his reaching out to help Grimes, his abuser, that he completed this quest and was redeemed and allowed to enter heaven.


            All three characters of varying degrees of “innocence” have a chance in the afterlife to achieve redemption.  This is contrary to mainstream Christian belief in that one should have repented all sins before dying in order to ascend into heaven, but this portrayal of saved souls after death reveal what are possibly the author’s thoughts on that matter — everyone has a chance at redemption whether in life or in the afterlife.

Kingsley, Charles. The Water-Babies : A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby. New York: Penguin Group, 2008. Print.

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