Tom is a chimney sweep, who works for an abusive Mr. Grimes. Mr. Grimes swears, drinks, and smokes, and Tom is left to wonder if he will be like that when he becomes a man. Tom and Mr. Grimes are always dirty, considering their line of work, but also as a theme for the entire book, as you'll see...
One day they get a job at the house of Ellie, where everything is so much nicer than what Tom and Mr. Grimes are used to. They are so excited to get there, but they are not alone on their journey, for an Irishwoman joins them. They come upon a spring of cool, clear water, and Mr. Grimes uses it to wash his face because he had been drinking heavily the night before. Mr. Grimes does not allow Tom to wash himself, however. To this, the Irishwoman said that those who wanted to be clean will be clean, but those who wish to be dirty will always be dirty. Mr. Grimes is a little unnerved at this, and they hurry back on their way.
At Ellie's house, Tom is curious about everything, and the servants are eager to explain things to him, but Mr. Grimes urges him on to work. Tom gets confused on his way through the chimneys, and finds himself in Ellie's room himself. Here he feels ashamed to see himself in the mirror as a dirty, little boy when Ellie and her whole room is clean, and could never be as dirty as he. A maid walks in and thinks him to be a thief, where he is soon chased by a parade of people through the town.
He ends up in a small town many miles away, where he is so exhausted, and, thinking on the words of the Irishwoman, who has been following him this whole time a lot closer than the others (who soon stopped), he falls into a river. There the water babies, fairies of the water, scrub him so clean that his skin comes off and he becomes a water baby like them.
He spends his days in the little river, trying to make friends with the local animals, because the other water babies were instructed to never speak to him or show themselves to him. He didn't remember much of his previous life either.
Soon, a rainstorm happens, and Tom is inspired to leave the little river and go on to the bigger ocean. He continues to make new friends, and enemies, and waits for a while in hope of seeing another water baby...
Finally, he meets them. Lots of them. and meets Ms. Bedonebyasyoudid and Ms. Bedonebyasyouwouldbedoneby. The former lady punishes many of the wrongdoers in the world, and teaches Tom lessons, while the latter lady is generally prettier than her sister, and shows kindness toward all. They decide to get Tom a teacher after he steals sweets from Ms. Bedonebyasyoudid, and the teacher doesn't recognize him at first because he grew ugly after stealing, and he doesn't recognize the teacher at first because the teacher grew so pretty, but Tom soon realizes that his teacher is Ellie!
She had died earlier, after Tom had been chased away, when she was taken along with a Professor to the shore. She believed in water babies while the Professor tried to prove there was no such thing, when Tom himself was caught in the Professor's net. The Professor was too proud to admit what Tom was, but Ellie knew it was a water baby, even though she didn't know it was Tom at first. All anyone knew was that Tom's dead body, which was really just his skin, was found drowned in the river. Ellie soon fell on the rocks they were standing on and she eventually died because of it. The Professor was properly punished by Ms. Bedonebyasyoudid, by filling his thoughts with all sorts of fantasy creatures, and making him go so crazy that many learned people had to come and experiment on him to find a cure.
Ellie is a good teacher for Tom, but she has to go back to her home every Sunday. Tom is unhappy about this, and asks the sisters what he can do to join Ellie. They tell him he needs to go far away to stay with someone and do something he doesn't like. This would mean finding Mr. Grimes at the Other-end-of-Nowhere and helping him.
Tom journeys alone through the sea in search of Mother Carey, who makes things make themselves, and who can also tell him the way he needs to go. Along the way, he is joined by a dog, who is soon drowned and becomes a water dog and Tom's companion.
After asking the advice of the birds he met, he found Mother Carey on a great throne, thinking up new creatures, while whales basked on the ice and waited to be turned into something new. Mother Carey can show Tom the way as long as he looks at her, but of course she can't come with him, so she tells him to look into the eyes of the water dog, and walk backwards the whole way. This may be slower, but it will work. And so it does.
He passes by many lands that have allegorical ideas, such as the children who were turned into turnips, before finding a land with many truncheons, who have no arms and legs. They are supported internally by the spirit of justice. They direct Tom to a filthy prison with a high wall, where Tom is directed up to find Mr. Grimes down a chimney. Mr. Grimes is stuck fast, and yearns to smoke and drink again. Every day Mr. Grimes was pelted by hail stones as well. Tom tries to help him, but Mr. Grimes is too cold within himself to make any use of the help he wanted to receive. One of the sisters comes to explain to Tom and Mr. Grimes, that the hail that would fall was really Mr. Grimes's mother's tears, when she cried over her son, when Mr. Grimes first ran away from home to join the chimney sweeps. This makes Mr. Grimes regret his evil doings, and this loosens the bricks around him so that he is free. He is soon sent to do work elsewhere, where he is still successfully working.
Tom has finally fulfilled his mission, and is led blindfolded through the backstairs of Ms. Bedonebyasyoudid, who really can change her form to be the Irishwoman, her sister, and Mother Carey. At the end of the stairs he sees Ellie, now a full grown woman after almost a hundred years, and Tom sees that he is a man. They never marry, but both become very successful in any task they take on. And there they live happily ever after.
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Mr. Grimes smokes, drinks, and swears. He also beats up Tom. The ideas set forth in the book may or may not offend some or disagree with some, so the adult needs to read the book and decide if these ideas correspond with what they want to teach their child. For example, Charles Kingsley brings up evolution as a main part of the book's theme.
If you like this you might like...
- The Little Prince, which also teaches ideas about life, by using an alien boy and several planets. The Water Babies teaches more about being morally right, while The Little Prince studies the question of what things really do matter.
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