History: This is the first major work written by Jonathan Swift, composed between 1694 and 1697 and published in 1704. It is arguably his most difficult satire, and perhaps his most masterly. The Tale is a prose parody which is divided into sections of "digression" and a "tale" of three brothers, each representing one of the main branches of western Christianity.
In the historical background to the period of 1696–1705, the most important political events might be the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the Test Act, and the English Settlement or Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689. Politically, the English had suffered a Civil War that had culminated with the beheading of the king, years of the Interregnum under the Puritan, Oliver Cromwell, and then Parliament inviting the king back to rule in 1660. Upon Charles II's death, his brother, James II of England took the throne. However, when it was alleged that James was Roman Catholic and married to a Roman Catholic, the English parliament invited William of Orange to rule in his stead, forcing James to flee the country under military threat. Parliament decided on the way in which all future English monarchs would be chosen. This method would always favor Protestantism over blood line.
From the point of view of the politically aware Englishman, Parliament had essentially elected a king. Although officially the king was supreme, there could be no doubt that the Commons had picked the king and could pick another instead. Although there was now a law demanding that all swear allegiance to the monarch as head of the church, it became less and less clear why the nation was to be so intolerant.
Religious conflict at the time was primarily between the Church of England and the dissenting churches. The threat posed by the intolerant dissenters was keenly felt by Establishment clerics like Jonathan Swift. It was common enough for Puritans and other dissenters to disrupt church services, to accuse political leaders of being the anti-Christ, and to move the people toward violent schism, riots, and peculiar behaviors including attempts to set up miniature theocracies. Protestant dissenters had led theEnglish Civil War. The pressure of dissenters was felt on all levels of British politics and could be seen in the change of the British economy.
The Industrial Revolution was beginning in the period between the writing and publication of A Tale of a Tub, though no one at the time would have known this. What Englishmen did know, however, was that what they called "trade" was on the rise. Merchants, importers/exporters, and "stock jobbers" were growing very wealthy. It was becoming more common to find members of the aristocracy with less money than members of the trading class. Those on the rise in the middle class professions were perceived as being more likely to be dissenters than members of the other classes were, and such institutions as the stock exchange and Lloyd's of London were founded by Puritan traders. Members of these classes were also widely ridiculed as attempting to pretend to learning and manners that they had no right to. Further, these "new men" were not, by and large, the product of the universities nor the traditional secondary schools. Consequently, these now wealthy individuals were not conversant in Latin, were not enamored of the classics, and were not inclined to put much value on these things.
Between 1688 and 1705, England was politically unstable. The accession of Queen Anne led to a feeling of vulnerability among Establishment figures. Anne was rumored to be immoderately stupid and was supposedly governed by her friend, Sarah Churchill, wife of the Duke of Marlborough. Although Swift was a Whig for much of this period, he was allied most nearly with the Ancients camp (which is to say Establishment, Church of England, aristocracy, traditional education), and he was politically active in the service of the Church. He claims, both in "The Apology for the &c." and in a reference in Book I of Gulliver's Travels, to have written the Tale to defend the crown from the troubles of the monsters besetting it. These monsters were numerous. At this time, political clubs and societies were proliferating. The print revolution had meant that people were gathering under dozens of banners, and political and religious sentiments previously unspoken were now rallying supporters. As the general dissenting position became the monied position, and as Parliament increasingly held power, historically novel degrees of freedom had brought an historically tenuous equipoise of change and stability.
Plot: A Tale of a Tub is divided between various forms of digression and sections of a "tale." The "tale," or narrative, is an allegory that concerns the adventures of three brothers, Peter, Martin, and Jack, as they attempt to make their way in the world. Each of the brothers represents one of the primary branches of Christianity in the West. This part of the book is a pun on "tub," which Alexander Pope says was a common term for a Dissenter's pulpit, and a reference to Swift's own position as a clergyman. Peter (named for Saint Peter) stands in for the Roman Catholic Church. Jack (named for John Calvin, but whom Swift also connects to "Jack of Leyden") represents the various Dissenting Protestant churches such as Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Congregationalists, or Anabaptists. The third brother, middle born and middle standing, is Martin (named for Martin Luther), whom Swift uses to represent the 'via media' of the Church of England. The brothers have inherited three wonderfully satisfactory coats (representing religious practice) by their father (representing God), and they have his will (representing the Bible) to guide them. Although the will says that the brothers are forbidden from making any changes to their coats, they do nearly nothing but alter their coats from the start. In as much as the will represents the Bible and the coat represents the practice of Christianity, the allegory of the narrative is supposed to be an apology for the Anglican church's refusal to alter its practice in accordance with Puritan demands and its continued resistance to alliance with the Roman church.
Review: If someone wants to make a person laugh, he must be put down among the merry-makers, comforters and entertainers.
This is what Swift wrote about himself: “I do not wish to entertain, but to irritate and insult people.”
From its opening (once past the prolegomena, which comprises the first three sections), the book alternates between Digression and Tale. However, the digressions overwhelm the narrative, both in terms of the forcefulness and imaginativeness of writing and in terms of volume. Furthermore, after Chapter X (the commonly anthologized "Digression on Madness"), the labels for the sections are incorrect. Sections then called "Tale" are Digressions, and those called "Digression" are also Digressions.
The digressions individually frustrate readers who expect a clear purpose. Each digression has its own topic, and each is an essay on its particular sidelight. In his biography of Swift, Ehrenpreis argued that each digression is an impersonation of a different contemporary author. This is the "persona theory," which holds that the Tale is not one parody, but rather a series of parodies, arising out of chamber performance in theTemple household. Prior to Ehrenpreis, some critics had argued that the narrator of the Tale is a character, just as the narrator of a novel would be. Given the evidence of A. C. Elias about the acrimony of Swift's departure from the Temple household, evidence from Swift's Journal to Stella about how uninvolved in the Temple household Swift had been, and the number of repeated observations about himself by the Tale'sauthor, it seems reasonable to propose that the digressions reflect a single type of man, if not a particular character.
In any case, the digressions are each readerly tests; each tests whether or not the reader is intelligent and skeptical enough to detect nonsense. Some, such as the discussion of ears or of wisdom being like a nut, a cream sherry, a cackling hen, etc., are outlandish and require a militantly aware and thoughtful reader. Each is a trick, and together they train the reader to sniff out bunk and to reject the unacceptable.
Opening Line: Whoever has an ambition to be heard in a crowd must press, and squeeze, and thrust, and climb with indefatigable pains, till he has exalted himself to a certain degree of altitude above them.
Closing Line: Where the pinch lay, I cannot certainly affirm; but having employed a world of thoughts and pains to split my treatise into forty sections, and having entreated forty Lords of my acquaintance that they would do me the honour to stand, they all made it matter of conscience, and sent me their excuses.
Quotes: He made it a part of his religion never to say grace to his meat.
Rating: Could not read.