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Summary Article: Tale of a Tub, A
from The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English

A prose satire by Jonathan Swift, his first major work, written in about 1696 but published in 1704. The principal narrative is the ‘fable of the coats’, an allegory following the fortunes of three brothers each left a coat by their father with strict instructions never to alter it. Peter (the Catholic Church), Martin (the Anglican) and Jack (the Calvinist) all exercise their utmost ingenuity in treating what they have inherited as they please, and the fable traces the squabbling that ensues.

The fable is of less interest, though, than the numerous formal digressions with which it is interspersed (on critics, madness and digressions, for example) which, ironically, are designed to carry the main satiric force of the book. The title itself (as well as meaning ‘flim-flam’) refers to the nautical practice of throwing tubs off the back of ships to distract the attention of whales; the digressions act in similar fashion. The chief targets of this most complex and accomplished of Swift's early works include religious fanaticism (he was no advocate of Dissent), pedantry, scientific credulity, quackery and selfdelusion. Swift frequently imitates the thought processes of those he is attacking, which gives rise to deliberate confusion in the reader. Although complicated, the book enjoys an intellectual symmetry in the ‘tradition of learned wit’, finding several precedents in the prose of Browne, Burton and Marvell. Its apparently chaotic nature, its paradoxes and contradictions, are similarly part of authorial design: with its clumsy paraphernalia of prefaces and notes, non-sequiturs and gaps, the Tale is, like The Dunciad, partly a parody of a bad book. The work made Swift notorious, and was widely misunderstood, especially by Queen Anne herself who mistook its purpose for profanity. It effectively disbarred its author from proper preferment within the church, but is often considered his most extraordinary work. Swift himself was certainly pleased with its imaginative flow; he is supposed to have remarked in later life, ‘Good God, what a genius I had when I wrote that book.’

The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, © Cambridge University Press 2000

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