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An Introduction to A Tale of a Tub

A Tale of a Tub was the first major work written by Jonathan Swift. It is arguably his most
difficult satire, and perhaps his most masterly. The Tale is aprose parody which is divided into
sections of "digression" and a "tale" of three brothers, each representing one of the main
branches of western hristianity. omposed between !"#$ and !"#%, it was eventually published
in !%&$.
A Tale was long regarded as a satire on religion itself, and has famously been attacked for that,
starting with 'illiam 'otton.
The "tale" presents a consistent satire of religious e+cess, while
the digressions are a series of parodies of contemporary writing in literature, politics,
theology, ,iblical e+egesis, and medicine. The overarching parody is of enthusiasm, pride,
and credulity. -t the time it was written, politics and religion were still linked very closely in
.ngland, and the religious and political aspects of the satire can often hardly be separated. "The
work made Swift notorious, and was widely misunderstood, especially by /ueen -nne herself
who mistook its purpose for profanity."
"It effectively disbarred its author from proper
preferment within the church,"
but is considered one of Swift1s best allegories, even by himself.
It was enormously popular, but Swift believed it damaged his prospect of advancement in
the hurch of .ngland.
"- Tale of a Tub" is divided between various forms of digression and sections of a "tale." The
"tale," or narrative, is an allegory that concerns the adventures of three brothers, 2eter, 3artin,
and Jack, as they attempt to make their way in the world. .ach of the brothers represents one of
the primary branches of hristianity in the 'est. This part of the book is a pun on "tub,"
which -le+ander 2ope says was a common term for a 4issenter1s pulpit, and a reference to
Swift1s own position as a clergyman. 2eter 5named for Saint 2eter6 stands in for the 7oman
atholic hurch.
Jack 5named for John alvin, but whom Swift also connects to "Jack of
8eyden"6 represents the various 4issenting 2rotestantchurches such
as ,aptists, 2resbyterians, /uakers, ongregationalists, or -nabaptists.
The third brother,
middle born and middle standing, is 3artin 5named for 3artin 8uther6, whom Swift uses to
represent the 1via media1 of the hurch of .ngland.
The brothers have inherited three
wonderfully satisfactory coats 5representing religious practice6 by their father 5representing
9od6, and they have his will 5representing the ,ible6 to guide them. -lthough the will says that
the brothers are forbidden from making any changes to their coats, they do nearly nothing but
alter their coats from the start. In as much as the will represents the ,ible and the coat represents
the practice of hristianity, the allegory of the narrative is supposed to be an apology for the
-nglican church1s refusal to alter its practice in accordance with 2uritan demands and its
continued resistance to alliance with the 7oman church
:rom its opening 5once past the prolegomena, which comprises the first three sections6, the book
alternates between 4igression and Tale. ;owever, the digressions overwhelm the narrative, both
in their length and in the forcefulness and imaginativeness of writing. :urthermore, after hapter
< 5the commonly anthologised "4igression on 3adness"6, the labels for the sections are
incorrect. Sections then called "Tale" are 4igressions, and those called "4igression" are also
A Tale of a Tub is an enormous parody with a number of smaller parodies within it. 3any critics
have followed Swift1s biographer Irvin .hrenpreis in arguing that there is no single, consistent
narrator in the work.
=ne difficulty with this position, however, is that if there is no single
character posing as the author, then it is at least clear that nearly all of the "personae" employed
by Swift for the parodies are so much alike that they function as a single identity. In general,
whether a *&th>century reader would view the book as consisting of do?ens of impersonations or
a single one, Swift writes the Tale through the pose of a 3odern or @ew 3an.
A Tale of a Tub Sections 1-11 summary
Section =ne, the AIntroduction,B begins with a discussion of the ways that writers rise above the
crowd and make their thoughts known, including the pulpit, the ladder 5or place for making
lectures6, and the stage itinerant 5which at the time could also refer to the gallows6. It proceeds to
satiri?e introductions, pointing out, for instance, that a good writer is said to hide his best points
rather than state them plainly, like hiding a nut inside a shell. 53eanwhile, this is e+actly what
Swift is doing, at length.6 ;e finally introduces his treatise proper, noting an original intention to
split it into forty sections.
Section Two begins with a man speaking to his three sons, 2eter, Jack and 3artin, before his
death. ;e is beCueathing to them very special coats, which will never wear and which will
always fit. ;e gives his sons instructions for caring well for his coats. The sons travel for seven
years and take good care of their coats. Then, they meet three women, with whom they fall in
love, and they proceed to commit all kinds of sins. The three brothers want to put shoulder>knots
onto their coats 5shoulder>knots being in fashion6 but, since there is nothing e+plicit in their
fatherDs will about shoulder>knots, they instead look for the mere letters in the word Ashoulder>
knotsB in their fatherDs will. Epon finding those letters, or close to those letters, they are satisfied
that such an alteration is acceptable. The brothers continue to alter their coats, according to
fashion trends, always finding some justification for the alteration within their fatherDs will.
Section Three is the first official digression, A- 4igression oncerning ritics.B The three
brothersD story is interrupted as the writer discusses the nature of criticism and makes a
distinction between the AcriticB and the Atrue critic.B The latter has more natural instinct and is
drawn to greater geniusFliabilities rather than virtues, the reader suspects. ;e also discusses the
difference between the -ncients and the 3oderns, as well as -ncient and 3odern ways of
Section :our returns to his narrative about the brothers. 2eter claims he is the eldest brother and
therefore is due all sorts of titles and honors. ;e embarks on several projectsG buying a continent,
devising new remedies, erecting a Awhispering>house,B creating an office of insurance,
supporting street shows, inventing a new kind of pickle, breeding a new kind of bull, and
handing out pardons to criminals. 2eter becomes rich and has delusions about his self>
importance. ;is brothers try to intervene, but they reali?e that they are unable to stop his fits of
madness, and they leave him. They revisit their fatherDs will, translating it into common speech,
and they come to a new understanding of what their father desired of them.
A- 4igression in the 3odern HindB now begins by justifying the very act of digression. It argues
that sometimes diversion is more instructive than instruction. This digression resumes the
-ncients versus 3oderns topic and critici?es 3odern forms of thought.
Section Si+ returns to the brothers. 2eter is still rich and comfortable, but his two brothers are
destitute, and they live together for comfort. They return to their two coats and their fatherDs will,
trying to return entirely to their fatherDs desires. They therefore begin to remove the adornments
affi+ed to the coat. 3artin does this slowly and carefully, while Jack, in his anger, removes the
adornments all at once, tearing the coat. In this way, the brothers begin to grow apart.
AThe 4igression in 2raise of 4igressionsB now discusses how certain types of argument can be
illuminating, especially when running parallel to certain other types of argument. This digression
then evaluates the modern wit, providing suggestions to the reader regarding how to appear
Section .ight discusses the nature of wind and inspiration. The ne+t section, A- 4igression
oncerning 3adness,B mentions Jack briefly because he is considered by the author to be mad.
The author discusses the great men who have changed history, many of whom were of religious
conviction, and proceeds to tell the story of several men who fit this description. ;e assesses
what it was, mentally, that allowed them to achieve such heights. 3adness here is a kind of
Ae+cess of vaporsB that produces genius. The author suggests that society seek out those young
men who appear disturbed and give them power, for it is likely that they possess this AmadnessB
of greatness.
Section Ten begins with a remark that authors provide prefaces or introductions to all sorts of
works, offering their thoughts grandly to the world. Thus, the author is doing the same,
e+pressing a wish that his piece be well>received. The author lists different types of readers>>the
superficial, the ignorant, and the learned>>and predicts how each kind reacts to satire. It is for the
latter, the learned, that he writes. ;e then discusses the different types of interpretations that be
gleaned from any te+t, and he offers some interpretations of his own te+t, noting, for e+ample,
that if a reader were to multiply the number of instances of the letter o by seven and then divide
it by nine, he would uncover a great mystery.
Section .leven offers a truism about the kinship of a traveler and his horse, especially when on a
difficult journey in which obstacles 5such as dogs6 are encountered. :inally we return to the story
of Jack, who has a very active imagination. Jack returns to his fatherDs will in order to glean its
meaning but, after a while, decides that such a meaning is AdeeperB and AdarkerB than he first
thought. ;e starts finding evidence in his fatherDs will 5which was only about the coats6 for all
sorts of actions he takes in life. 9radually, Jack begins to become more fanatical, playing tricks
and having fits, disliking it when he might hear music or see color. -lthough they are sworn
enemies, Jack and 2eter keep running into one another in the city. The author complains about
not being able to give more detail about the brothers, but he can summari?e their most recent
actionsG Jack and 2eter have teamed up against their brother 3artin in order to serve their own
agendas. @evertheless, when 2eter gets into trouble, Jack abandons him, and vice versa.
The conclusion declares that a work that is too long is as damaging as a book that is too short,
and that there is a time and place for every kind of book. The author describes the conversation
with his bookseller that gave rise to this particular book, predicting that he will be an author for
the ages. ;e also describes other authors of his acCuaintance, and says that he has come to make
many friends.
The blank place in Section =ne is purposeful, although the author wrote earlier that he lost some
of the pagesI here, too, he is being satirical. The list of books he has read, with far from accurate
descriptions of what those books are actually about, is likewise supposed to be funnyI these are
not books that one would choose for close e+amination, and it appears that the narrator has
woefully misunderstood those books. This is a central themeG people misunderstand what they
read, for a variety of reasons and with a variety of results ranging from the comic to the tragic.
The father in the beginning of the tale, when it finally begins in Section Two, represents 9od,
and his sons the three 'estern branches of the hristian church. 5See the character list for
details.6 The coats that he beCueaths them represent tradition, and his will, which the sons are
supposed to interpret correctly and follow, is an allegory for Scripture. The women with whom
the three brothers fall in love are meant to represent the sins of ovetousness, -mbition and
2ride. 54uchess dD-rgent is the 4ame of SilverI 3adame de 9rands>Titres is the 3adame of
9reat Titles, and the ountess dD=rgueil is the ountess of 2ride.6 The fact that the brothers so
Cuickly fall in love with these sinful women and soon descend into sin themselves, is
commentary on the fragility of religion in human hands. The discussion of the AidolB to whom
sacrifices are made is an allegory for a tailor, and the AfashionsB with which the brothers become
so enamored represent trends in religious or philosophical thought, which cause religions to alter
their original structure. 'hen the brothers interpret their fatherDs will in strange and ridiculous
ways 5such as looking for the presence of mere letters instead of actual words6, Swift is satiri?ing
the all>too>common habit of interpreting Scripture to justify whatever people would like to do.
A- 4igression oncerning riticsB is literary parody. The writer mocks the language of criticism
itselfI the AtrueB critic is supposedly todayDs writer who merely sets himself up as a critic and lets
his ideas flow. The reader must suspect that Swift really means that the best critics are the ones
who the writer says are e+tinctFthose who genuinely recover the best of the past and who
genuinely assess what is good and bad in othersD work. This section also suggests a dichotomy
between -ncients and 3oderns that he will e+pand upon elsewhere in AThe ,attle of the ,ooks.B
In Section :our, 2eterDs madness and richness are meant to represent the atholic hurch at its
heightI his projects such as Abuying a new continentB and Aerecting a whispering>houseB are
meant to represent the actions that the atholic hurch took to make admittance into ;eaven
easier 5Abuying a new continent,B suggests the introduction of purgatory, and Aerecting a new
whispering>houseB refers to an e+pansion of confession.6 =ne section refers to the sale of
Aindulgences,B which the author condemns because they seemed to let people off the hook after
committing serious crimes, if they only gave the hurch enough money. -t the end of the
section, the two brothers e+press the same criticism and get thrown out, which directly reflects
the one of the 2rotestant criticisms of the atholic hurch at the time of the 7eformation.
SwiftDs literary parody continues with A- 4igression in the 3odern Hind.B This digression is, as
one might now e+pect, a parody of literary digressions. ;is main purpose appears to be to parody
the way certain philosophers write. :or instance, he says ridiculously self>congratulatory things,
such asG AI hold myself obliged to give as much light as is possible to into the beauties and
e+cellencies of what I am writingB 5p. #J6.
In Section Si+, when the brothers return to their fatherDs will, this is a reference to 3artin
8utherDs and John alvinDs belief in the Aplain senseB of Scripture, and their work to strip
hristianity of all the additional non>scriptural elements that 7oman atholicism had added to it,
by going back to the original language and practices. SwiftDs decision to make 3artin and Jack
alter their coats differently is representative of how alvinism was further dissenting from
atholicism than 8utheranism wasI John alvin took his reformation to a greater e+treme than
3artin 8uther did. 'hen Jack rips his coat, the suggestion is that alvin went too far and ruined
the religion by not carefully unfastening the embellishments. In contrast, 3artin 53artin 8uther6
rips off the worst fringes but is careful not to damage the original coat, and even permits some of
the embellishments to stay attached so as not to remove the good along with the bad.
In A- 4igression in 2raise of 4igressions,B Swift descends into literary parody again with his
suggestions on how to be witty without having to actually read or thinkG one can simply learn the
title or study the inde+.
SwiftDs discussion, in Section .ight, of wind as inspiring 5humorously comparing wind to a
AbelchB6 is meant to suggest the nature of religious inspiration, which causes one to reinterpret
Scripture or challenge the status Cuo. A- 4igression oncerning 3adnessB is similarly separate
from the main storyI its separation, as well as the pieces missing from the te+t, highlight the very
frantic AmadnessB about which Swift is writingI it is as though the writer himself is madFunable
to return to his main story, unable to present a complete te+t.
SwiftDs defense of madness, here, as not a malady but a mark of superior talent seems to be more
sincere than usual. This is a rare moment in which it appears as if Swift actually believes the
plain sense of the argument. ;is later descent into suggesting that young men who are strange or
fitful be given command of great armies, however, indicates a return to satire. Section TenDs
failure to return to the story of the three brothers likewise conforms structurally to SwiftDs idea of
AmadnessBI the very arrangement of this tale seems mad.
In this section, Swift offers his work to the world in a high>handed way in order to parody those
who write such long, self>congratulatory prefaces. ;is tone appears more earnest as he describes
the different types of readers, but he then goes back into satire when he suggests methods of
interpreting his workI the idea that the number of instances of the letter o might reveal any sort of
mystery in the work is utterly ridiculous, and thus mocks such bi?arre literary interpretations.
Swift continues to poke fun at the establishment of literature and learning with his conclusion
which, although it has its moments serious in tone, is satirical in the description of SwiftDs
conversation with his bookseller, describing with mock>drama how his bookseller Alooked
westwardB before answering the Cuestion of what Swift ought to write. 8ikewise, with SwiftDs
declaration that he will be remembered as an author, he parodies those men who have inflated
ideas of their greatness.