Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2563
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, arrogant, proud, self-adulatory, concerned with the events of the moment. Indeed, Swift was fond of scrupulously celebrating every April 1 as All Fools’ Day, but he also recognized April 2: All Knaves’ Day. He doubtless felt that both halves of humankind deserved some token of official recognition. Swift also favored mixing the two, however: He frequently shows readers that a man who is manipulator, con man, and knave in one set of circumstances is himself conned, befooled, and gulled in another. As such, the modern reveals an unexpected complexity in his makeup; he also illustrates the era (as Swift imagines it) that he inhabits—a period overfull of bad taste and poor writing, which are the broad marks of cultural decadence.
In the work of a satirist, the world is regularly depicted as cyclic in historic periods, and usually in decline. Swift and Sir William Temple both stressed some trend toward decay in the modern era and spoke often of barbarians and invasions; it was a type of satiric myth suitable to the disruptive fictions that the satirist envisions. In section IX of A Tale of a Tub, the modern vacillates between viewing all humankind as “curious” or “credulous,” as busy probers, analysts, and excavators or as superficial and inert: knaves versus fools. As is typical of Swift, the fool and knave personas are infused with enough familiar traits to suggest that all people partake of either. Further, Swift entraps his reader by implying that there are no other categories: One is either fool or knave or both. His irony is corrosive and inclusive, capturing the reader in its toils. In that sense, Swift is deliberately disruptive; he seeks to startle and to embroil the reader in his fictions about stupidity and depravity. To such an end, he tampers with logic to make his case appear substantial and manipulates paradox to keep his readers off balance. Such techniques lend Swift his volatile force.
These strategies are to be found in Swift’s best verse; the same may be said for his two great ironic short-prose pieces: Argument Against Abolishing Christianity (1708) and A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People of Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or the Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public (1729). Both of these works seek to shock the reader and to propose the discomforting, the alarming, the untenable.
Swift’s undisputed masterpiece is Gulliver’s Travels, originally titled Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and Then a Captain of Several Ships. This fictional work accommodates all of Swift’s perennial themes and does so effectually. First, the work is perhaps the definitive study of new middle-class values, specifically the preoccupation with slang, cash, smug self-righteousness, self-assertion, and self-congratulation. Second, it might not be considered a “novel” in the conventional sense of the term, but it is a delightfully fact-filled simulation of adventure fiction, and it stems assuredly from the satiric picaresque tradition (in Spain and France) that greatly contributed to the formulation of modern novelistic techniques and themes.
Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver (a mulish gull) is a model representative of the fool and the knave: He aspires to befool others but nevertheless befuddles himself. His medium is the very popular literary genre of the travelogue, or record of a “voyage of discovery.” The genre grew popular through its Cartesian emphasis on an inductive observer-self and the Romantic subject of adventures in far-off lands. Such a travelogue format allows the narrator to take his readers on a vicarious journey of adventure and concludes by suggesting that the traveler has fulfilled the pattern of the bildungsroman and has attained education, growth, experience, and Aristotelian cognitio (insight, maturation, the acquisition of new knowledge). As might be expected in an exemplary case manipulated by Swift, Gulliver is anything but the apt learner. He is a crass materialist for whom experiences consist of precise measurements of objects observed, a tedious cataloging of dress, diet, and customs, and an infinite variety of pains in note taking, recording, transcribing, and translating. He is superficiality and rank objectivity incarnate. Naturally, therefore, his everyday mean density prevents his acquisition of any true understanding.
Gulliver is a minor physician, the mediocre little man, anxious, like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, to make sightseeing tours and to acquire cash. His first of four voyages carries him to the land of six-inch mites, the Lilliputians, and his second voyage to the land of gargantuan giants, the Brobdingnagians. Gulliver remains myopic in both locations, for he can hardly consider that tiny creatures can (and do) perpetuate monstrous deeds, and, once he perceives that the giants are rather tame, he leaps to the conclusion that they are infinitely superior to other human types (even though their political and social institutions are no better than they should be, given the quirks and flaws of human nature). In sum, the tour from very small to very large merely stimulates in Gulliver a sense of wondrous contrast: He expects in these different worlds wondrous differences.
Amusingly, what the reader finds is much the same—that is, the uneven and imperfect human nature. Equally amusing, Gulliver behaves much the same himself in his attempts to ingratiate himself with his “superiors”: He aspires to become a successful competitor in all worlds as a “titled” nobleman, a “nardac,” a “courtier” with “connections” at court. Like many middle-class people, he is a man in the middle, aspiring above all for upward mobility, mouthing the commonplaces of the day, utterly incapable of judging people and events. He is also the worst sort of traveler; he is a man who sees no further than his own predilections and preconceptions and who imitates all the manners that he sees around him. Actually, the realms of big and little are merely distortions of the real world. Here, one of the work’s central ironies is found in the fact that Gulliver could have learned as much, or as little, if he had stayed at home.
The world of sizes is replaced in Gulliver’s third voyage by the world of concepts: The muddled peoples he visits are victims of mathomania and abstraction-worship. At the same time, it is revealed that the world of the past, like the world of the present, has been tainted and corrupt. Even the potentially ideal Struldbruggs, who live forever, are exposed as being far from lucky. They are, rather, especially accursed by the afflictions of impotence, depression, and senility. Swift has, with cartoon facility, carted Gulliver all around the world, showing him the corrosive face of fallen humanity, even among the various robbers, cowards, pirates, and mutineers that had beset him as he traveled in European ships—but Gulliver does not see.
The stage is properly set for the fourth voyage. Utilizing his favorite ploys of reversal and entrapment, Swift puts Gulliver into a land of learned and rational horses (the Houyhnhnms) and debauched hairy, monkeylike beasts (the Yahoos). Once again, there is no middle ground: All in this world is rational horse or wolfish (and oafish) bestiality. Obviously, Gulliver chooses the equestrian gentlemen as his leaders and masters. (Indeed, throughout all the voyages, Gulliver the conformist is in quest of a staid position and “masters” who will tell him what to do and grant him praise and sustenance for his slavish adulation.)
Slowly it is revealed, however, that the Yahoos are men: Gulliver is a debased, gross, and deformed member of the Yahoo tribe; as Swift sweetly and confoundingly phrases it, Gulliver is a “perfect yahoo.” The horses themselves rebuff this upstart, and Gulliver, who has undergone every other sort of ignominy in the course of his travels, is finally evicted as an undesirable alien from the horsey paradise. At last, Gulliver thinks he has learned a lesson; he aspires to be a horse, and, back in Europe, he shuns the human species and favors the environs of straw and stables. He has hardly acquired the rationality of his leaders and appears quite mad. Swift’s ultimate paradox seems to imply that people can “know” about reason and ideals but can never master or practice them. Even here, however, Swift cruelly twists the knife at the last moment, for Gulliver, several years later, is revealed as slowly forgetting his intense (and irrational) devotion to the Houyhnhnms and slowly beginning to be able to tolerate and accept the lowly human race that he had earlier so intransigently spurned. Gulliver cannot even stick to a lesson painfully and rudely learned during many years; he lacks the brains, drive, ambition, and consistency necessary to keep him on any course. Gulliver’s travels eventually get him nowhere.
In sum, Gulliver’s Travels makes a huge tragicomical case for the absurdity of pretentious humankind. Gulliver is fool enough to believe that he is progressing and knave enough to boast about it and to hope to gain some position and affluence from the event. At his proudest moments, however, he is little more than a driveler, a gibbering idiot who is raveningly insane. Gulliver’s painful experiences and the brute instruction his readers acquire are a caustic finale to much of the heady and bold idealism of the Renaissance and a cautionary plea for restraint in an era launched on celebrating reason, science, optimism, and enlightenment. Time has shown that Swift was largely right: Blithe superconfidence in people, their sciences, and their so-called progress is very likely to come enormously to grief. Gulliver’s Travels speaks to everyone because it addresses crucial issues about the human condition itself.
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