A Tale Of A Tub Summary

Jonathan Swift

A Tale Of A Tub

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A Tale Of A Tub Summary

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A Tale of a Tub is a 1704 Restoration Period satire criticizing religion by Jonathan Swift. Swift was one of the greatest satirists of all time. The tale discusses three brothers—an allegory for the three branches of Western Christianity. Peter is a symbol of the Roman Catholic Church, Jack a symbol of Puritanism, and Martin a symbol of the Church of England. Although the tale of these brothers seems to be the focus of the piece, the digressions often take over in deliberate Swiftian fashion.

A Tale of a Tub begins with an apology, added in in 1710 after its initial publication. For anyone who misinterpreted Swift’s work, he explains he was discussing the follies of religion. He asserts his satire should be revered, as any discourse on law or politics would be. He also maintains the work is not plagiarized and any borrowing done was minimal. Finally, he claims the unfinished nature of the first publication was due to a publishing error and was not purposeful or any fault of his. The apology is followed by a list of fictional titles also written by the author that are meant to be a joke, such as “A General History of Ears.”

Preceding the list are letters from the bookseller, wondering to whom the dedication should go. The dedication is to “Prince Posterity,” which Swift uses as a criticism against what the public deems worthy of posterity. There is then an explanation for the title of the piece. Sailors used to throw a bathtub into the sea to dissuade whales from hitting their ships. The piece is meant to be a distraction, to get critics to focus on A Tale of a Tub, instead of other pieces. The introductory pieces to A Tale of a Tub conclude with Swift satirizing satirists themselves, while also satirizing introductions in general.

A man is speaking to his three sons before his death—Peter, Jack, and Martin. The father is willing the sons coats, which they are never supposed to alter. The three brothers immediately begin altering the coats to suit their ideas of fashion. For example, Peter wants to add shoulder knots to his coat. Since nothing is said in his father’s will about shoulder knots, he finds the letters in the will that spell out shoulder knots, which he thinks is a good enough excuse.

The narrator then digresses into a discussion about critics. He differentiates between critics and true critics. True critics have heart for criticism. He also differentiates between modern and ancient ways of thought.

As the story of the brothers continues, Peter delves into fits of delusion. As the eldest brother, he believes he is entitled to more, as it comes to titles and honors. He decides to take on several endeavors, such as building a continent and inventing a new type of pickle. He gains wealth and continues having delusions. His brothers attempt to intervene, but he does not listen. His brothers take on the task of translating their father’s will into modern speech, so they can better understand his instructions.

The next digression discusses digressions. The narrator asserts that sometimes digressions are more beneficial than the main instruction itself. The narrator also continues the modern versus ancient discussion.

As the story continues, Peter is still wealthy, but the other brothers live in poverty. They continue to try to figure out their coats while studying their father’s will. Martin removes adornments on the coat without ruining it. Jack removes all ornamentation on the coat, ruining it. The brothers begin to grow apart.

The next digression continues to praise digressions. The narrator states that if certain digressions run in parallel to other arguments, the digressions can be especially poignant. This digression also discusses wit and gives advice on how to attain wit. Another digression briefly discusses the wind and how artists and great thinkers become inspired. After that, madness is discussed. The narrator mentions Jack, as he is certainly mad. But, the narrator discusses how men who are regarded as mad can often change the course of history, especially those involved in religion. He discusses examples of these mad men and asserts these men should be sought out and given power. To the narrator, this type of madness is often synonymous with greatness. Yet another digression discusses authors and readers. Authors provide prefaces to their works to explain how their works should be approached, and the narrator hopes his piece will be well received. Although there are different types of readers, satire is only for the learned type, as the ignorant and superficial readers will not fully grasp satire. The narrator then discusses how works can be interpreted in many uncountable ways. He notes the interpretation of his own text, saying readers should search for strange and unfathomable answers in his text and they will uncover a mystery.

The story returns to the brothers. Jack has completely fallen into delusion as well. In his mind, he finds evidence of more acts to take in his life, even though the will was solely about coats. Jack becomes more and more of a zealot. He has fits and begins to dislike music and colors. Jack and Peter, still at odds, often run into each other. The author does not have much more information about the brothers, but he describes their most recent actions. Jack and Peter team up against Martin. Peter gets into trouble though, and Jack abandons him. The reverse also happens.

The conclusion discusses book length and how books that are too long are as bad as books that are too short. The narrator believes his book will stand the test of time, and discusses how the book came to be. He also is grateful for all of his fellow author friends.