Jonathan Swift Jonathan Swift Long Fiction Analysis

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Jonathan Swift Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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...

(The entire section is 2,563 words.)