Great Ideas Collection: Swift

In the seventh of our series exploring the books of Penguin’s Great Ideas Collection, Sophie Kingham reviews Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Tale of a Tub’. 

Written in the late 1690s, and published in 1704, A Tale of a Tub is Jonathan Swift’s first major work. Originally intended as a defence of the Anglican Church, it was instead interpreted as an attack on the religious sect.

The ‘tale’ is a satire of religion, using a man’s last Will and Testament as a metaphor for the Bible so as to analyse the traits of three different churches. Throughout the book, this tale is regularly interrupted by digressions into politics, literature and theology.

The ‘tale’ begins with three brothers surrounding their father’s deathbed, where he bequeaths to them three very special coats;

“Sons, because I have purchased no estate, nor was born to any, I have long considered of some good legacies to bequeath you; and at last, with much care, as well as expense, have provided each of you (here they are) a new coat. Now, you are to understand that these coats have two virtues contained in them; one is, that with good wearing they will last you fresh and sound as long as you live; the other is that they will grow in the same proportion with your bodies, lengthening and widening of themselves, so as to always fit […] you will find in my will, here it is, full instructions in every particular concerning the wearing and management of your coats; wherein you must be exact, to avoid the penalties I have appointed for every transgression or neglect, upon which your future fortunes will entirely depend. I have also commanded in my will that you should live together in one house like brethren and friends, for then you will be sure to thrive, and not otherwise.”

The Will represents the Bible, and throughout the tale the reader discovers that the three brothers each personify a branch of western Christianity: Peter represents the Church of Rome, Martin represents the Church of England, and Jack who represents Protestant dissent.

They start by willingly following their father’s orders, but soon try to find loopholes in order to adorn their coats with fashionable accessories. This leads to arguments, culminating in each brother leaving independently, and interpreting their father’s will in their own way.

As previously mentioned, the digressions woven throughout this tale are discussions of literature, politics and theology. There is A Digression Concerning Critics, where Swift defines the differences between a “critic” and a “true critic”, and who has better natural instincts.  Second is A Digression in the Modern Kind, which (ironically) attempts to justify digressions.

The last, A Digression Concerning the Original, the Use, and Improvement of Madness in a Commonwealth, refers to brother Jack (from the tale) as an example of great men who are mad.  These detours seem more like unnecessary interruptions, creating a rather unusual format.

Overall, Swift’s style of writing can be structurally clumsy, meaning lapses of concentration for the reader aren’t a rarity. And in his introduction, he has a tendency to use unusual, obscure metaphors that risk damaging the real meaning behind the message.

However, it must be remembered how dramatically language has changed in the past three centuries and, if written in today’s modern language, perhaps the effect would pack just as much punch as then.  Whatever the reaction, Swift’s work is one to be read and mulled over and fully, for better or worse, debated.


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