Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
A Tale of a Tub is Swift’s wildest adventure in satirical humor. Speaking through a diabolical persona of his own making, he pillories the corruptions of churches and schools. The title refers to the large tub that sailors would throw overboard to divert a whale from ramming their boat. In Swift’s satire, the whale is Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651), a political monster born of Descartes’s mathematical philosophy. Institutional Christianity is the ship that might be sunk in such an onslaught, and its timbers have already been loosened by schismatic factions.
The book is an allegory of church history. A father wills suits of clothes to his three sons, with directions that the suits never be altered. Brothers Peter, Martin, and Jack represent Catholic, Anglican, and Puritan sects, respectively. Peter upgrades his garments with gold lace, shoulder knots, and such trappings. Martin removes the false ornamentation from his without tearing the cloth. Jack zealously rips his garment to shreds to get rid of all ornament.
This basic allegory is richly embellished with outlandish digressions, parodies, puns, quibbles, unstructured foolery, and displays of odd erudition. The diabolical narrative takes every opportunity to prick the pretensions of pedants, religious dissenters, and perfectionists whose projects try to remake human society along rational lines. Swift thought that human reason is rather weak, blown flat in fact by...
(The entire section is 479 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
A Tale of a Tub has been called the greatest of English satires. The point is debatable, but the work is surely a most spirited, complex, and amusing contribution to this genre. Jonathan Swift also showed his satirical genius in Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and in his famous essay, “A Modest Proposal” (1729), advocating the eating of infants.
Satire is written when an author wishes to attack something. Swift spent a lifetime attacking the pretensions and stupidity of the world around him. His main object in A Tale of a Tub, he said, was to ridicule “the numerous and gross corruptions in religion and learning.” These, readers discover, include pedantic scholars, egoistic critics, fanatic literalists in religion, and clever theologians. Such people poison society with misapplication of their reasoning powers.
Swift wisely sees to it that his sense of outrage at the religious and scholarly varieties of human stupidity is complemented throughout by an elevating sense of the comic. The opening dedication to Lord Somers, for example, shows Swift in one of his contrived comic poses. In the dedication, engagingly posing as a gullible and naïve bookseller, he satirizes the excessive praise so prevalent in dedications of the time. The genius of the attempt is the fact that hyperbole itself is the method he employs.
With the second of the prefatory dedications, Swift’s target becomes clearer. Addressing...
(The entire section is 1623 words.)