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 “His Royal Highness Prince Posterity,” Swift makes a great and ironic show of ascribing great wit and literary achievement to his age. Swift has his tongue quite firmly in cheek in this passage and implies that the wise one seeks out virtue and value in all ages. Modernity alone has no just claim; what is new is not necessarily the best. Swift’s position, therefore, in the “Battle of the Books” (an intellectual controversy of his time), tended to favor the ancients or the classics as opposed to the moderns.
In the subsequent preface, Swift continues with his consummate irony to excoriate the writers of his time. He explains his title. When seamen meet a whale, they throw out an empty tub to divert him lest he wreck the ship. If the ship is the ship of state and the whale represents the vast body of scurrilous and destructive writers and thinkers who “pick holes in the weak sides of religion and government,” then the tale, says Swift, shall serve as a similar decoy for the wits of the day to attack.
On the surface, Swift’s intention and meaning seem plain. He raises the perennial cry against two swarms of pests: the egoistic poetasters who set themselves up as wits, intellects, and critics, and the newer philosophers whose theories seem harmful to England’s Christian and constitutional way of life, as in the case of Thomas Hobbes. As a conservative, a good Anglican, and a defender of the ancients, Swift was understandably angered, but latent in the argument, as is often the case with sensible Swift, is his recognition that in fact there are flaws in the existing schemes of religion and government: “a great many are hollow, and dry, and empty, and noisy, and wooden.” The point here is simply that Swift’s satire is distinguished not only by its sharp edge but by its double edge.
Swift proceeds through his preface by calling into play parody, well-turned phrase, artful digression, and mock diffidence—all of these in preparation for the style and the method of the treatise itself and all playing harmoniously in one of the world’s great symphonies of irony. Eleven sections of the tale proper go before the conclusion. Part 1 is the introduction. With part 2, the tale officially begins, with “Once upon a time. . . .” The tale resumes in sections 4, 6, 8, and 11, with the intervening sections consisting of digressions that are called such. The tale proper contains Swift’s satire on abuses in religion; the digressions satirize abuses in learning.