Study Guide

Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift Essay - Critical Essays

Jonathan Swift Long Fiction Analysis

It must be noted that Jonathan Swift’s “fictions” are nothing like conventional novels. They seldom detail the “adventures” of a hero or even a protagonist and never conclude with a character’s romantic achievement of goals or fulfillment of desires. Indeed, Swift is the great master of fictionalizing nonfiction. His satires always purport to be something factual, humdrum, diurnal, unimaginative: a treatise, a travel diary, an annotated edition, a laborious oration, a tendentious allegory, a puffed-out “letter to a friend.” Extremist Protestant sects condemned fiction, and “projectors” and would-be investigators in the dawning age of science extolled the prosaic, the plodding, the scholarly, the methodical, and the factual. At the same time, urban population growth and the rise of the middle class created a growing new audience, and printing presses multiplied in accordance with demand. Many “popular” and best-seller art forms flourished: sermons, true confessions, retellings (and second parts) of hot-selling tales and political harangues, news items, hearsay gossip, and science all became jumbled together for public consumption, much of which led to spates of yellow journalism. Throughout his life Swift rebelled against such indelicacies and depravities, and his satiric procedure included the extremist parody of tasteless forms—reductio ad absurdum. It was by such means that Swift secured his fame as an author.

A Tale of a Tub

Doubtless his most dazzling prose performance of this kind was his earliest, A Tale of a Tub, which appeared anonymously in 1704. (Swift, in fact, published most of his satires anonymously, although his work was usually instantly recognized and acclaimed.) A Tale of a Tub is actually a “medley” of pieces imitating the penchant for an author’s combining fiction, essays, letters, verse, fragments, or anything else to enable him to amass a book-length manuscript. It contains “The Battle of the Books,” a wooden allegorical piece in the manner of Aesop’s Fables, detailing the “quarrel of ancients versus moderns,” and a fragmentary treatise titled “The Mechanical Operation of the Spirit,” trussed up in the inept form of a casual letter to a friend.

The treatise mocks the new “scientific” trend of reducing all things to some species of Cartesian (or Newtonian) materialism. Rather comically, it deploys in a blasé manner the language of ancient Greek and Roman atomists—Democritus and Epicurus—as if they were contemporary modernists. Indeed, one pervasive theme throughout this volume is the ridiculousness of the modernist position of “independence”—although the moderns might be ignorant of the past, the ideas and genres of classical antiquity keep recurring in their works, a fact that belies their supposed originality (even while demonstrating that, as a result of solipsism, their form and control disintegrate into chaos).

Clearly, the titular piece, “A Tale of a Tub,” is Swift’s early masterpiece and one of the great (and most difficult) satires in any language. In its pages, an avowed fanatic “modern” aspires to “get off” an edition, to tout and sell himself, to make money, to demonstrate his uniqueness and, however evanescently, tyrannically to be “the latest modern.” He seeks to reedit an old tale of three brothers and their adventures. Naturally, he decorates and updates such a version to give it the latest cut and fashion, the style and wit and jargon of the moment. (It is perhaps an accident that this tale of the dissensions of Peter, Martin, and Jack parallels the vicissitudes of the history of Christianity, as it splinters into differing and quarreling religious sects. The modern appears ignorant of historical sense.)

The new version of the old story, however, is fragmented: Every time the modern’s imagination or his fancy supplies him with a spark, he promptly follows his rather meandering muse and travels into an elaboration, an annotation, or a digression. In fact, the opening fifty pages of the work are cluttered with the paraphernalia of “modern” publishing: dedications, publisher’s comments, introductions, apologies, notes to the second edition, acknowledgments, prefaces, and forewords. Thereafter, when such a cloud of ephemeral formalities would seem to have been dispensed with, the author still manages to interject a plethora of digressions—afterthoughts, asides, cute remarks apropos of nothing, commentary, snipings at critics, obsequious snivelings for the reader, canting pseudophilosophy for the learned, and pity and adoration for himself. In no time at all, the entire tale is awash in detours, perambulations, and divagations.

This modern storyteller is nothing if not effervescent, boorish, and chronically self-indulgent. He claims that his pipe dreams and diversions are in essence planned excursions and in fact deliberately philosophical meditations, rich with allegorical meanings. The opposite is also true, and the modern’s tub is like an empty cart—rattling around most furiously in its vacuity, making the most noise. Furthermore, the digressions become unwieldy. The tale is disrupted more and more frequently, and the digressions become longer and longer. The modern is his most penetrating in the trenchant section IX—a digression in praise of madness—as he coyly confesses that his reason has been overturned, his intellect rattled, and that he has been but recently confined. The continued multiplication of digressions (until they subvert sections of the tale) and the finale, when the modern loses his notes and his ramblings give out entirely, are easily understood as the wanderings of a madman—a modern who suppresses the past, memory, reason, and self-control. If Swift’s warning about the growing taste for newness, modernity, and things-of-the-moment appears madcap and farcical, it is nevertheless a painfully close nightmare preview of future fashions, fantasms, and fallacies that subsequently came to be real.

A Tale of a Tub clearly demonstrates several of Swift’s most common fictional ploys and motifs. Some representative of the depraved “moderns” is usually present, always crass, irreligious, ignorant,...

(The entire section is 2563 words.)