Jonathan Swift

A Tale Of A Tub

  • 42-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 21 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a college professor with an MFA in Creative Writing
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A Tale Of A Tub Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 42-page guide for “A Tale Of A Tub” by Jonathan Swift includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 21 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Hypocrisy of Figureheads in 18th-Century England and Ancient Versus Modern.

Plot Summary

Jonathan Swift wrote A Tale of a Tub (published in 1704) not only to expound upon the hypocrisy of religion in early 18th century England, but to explore ideas about critics, oration, ancient and modern philosophies, digressions, and the nature of writing itself. These themes are all underscored with a satirical tone that takes religion, authors, and critics to task. The title refers to the tub that sailors used to toss out to distract whales from tipping their ships. The ship represents the status quo of the English government and its religious structure, while the whale is a symbol for the new ideas and controversies attempting to rock the ship: The government must keep dissent like Swift’s at bay.

Although it’s been suggested that Swift intended to write a piece that was supportive of Protestantism (he was a clergyman in the Church of England), the structure of the piece and the consistent use of satire made it seem like he was denouncing all religion. The Anglican Church disapproved of his treatise, as did the monarchy. Even though he avoided admitting authorship of the piece, many assumed he had written it and it stunted his rise in the Church.

This confusion surrounding Swift’s intentions could partly have to do with the fact that at first glance, the book does not have a clear organizational structure. It consists of a preface, 11 sections, and a conclusion. Preceding those chapters are letters from the Bookseller to Lord Somers, a possible patron, and to the reader. The writer also has a letter to Bonnie Prince Charlie that critiques his education. The end features a history of a character, a digression, and an addition reflecting upon where readers of this book might end up. Within the 11 sections, there are titular segments that discuss three brothers, who are representative of three religions: Catholicism, Protestantism, and Puritanism. There are also literal “Digression” sections, where the author discusses critics, modernity, digressions, madness, and the soul, as well as his literary intentions.

Swift begins the core of the book with “The Preface” and “Introduction.” These chapters do much to explore the concepts of satire that will appear throughout the text. He touches upon the types of oration and squabbles between groups of intellectuals. He also discusses the idea of a preface itself and what it does to add to or detract from a work. 

The “A Tale of a Tub” sections describe the lives of three brothers: Peter, Martin, and Jack. Their father dies and they receive his will. He leaves them three coats, which the will stipulates that they should not alter or else they will ruin their futures. However, shoulder knots come into vogue, and the brothers, led by Peter, who represents the Catholic Church, begin to add to their coats. 

The narrator moves on to define critics and critique. The true critic, whether ancient or modern, is able to locate flaws that nobody else can find and takes pleasure in it. Writers should view them like mirrors and use this reflection to fix their work. 

Back in “A Tale of a Tub,” Peter is gaining more power over his brothers. Martin, who represents the Church of England, and Jack, who represents Puritanism, are both controlled by Peter. When they finally object, he kicks them out of the house, and they must go off on their own. This is symbolic of the Reformation. After this, there is a chapter that discusses the difference between ancient and modern philosophies as well as the art of writing a successful preface.

We then look back in on the brothers, who are trying to fix their coats by taking the extra ribbons, buttons, and lace off, an act which causes damage. Martin does it carefully, but Jack is careless and gets holes in his coat. This represents the differences in their religious outlooks and the extent to which they are deconstructing the old Catholic teachings.

Swift then moves on to a digression praising digressions. In fact, he is using these tangents to highlight ideas that support his main argument about the ridiculousness of religious infighting and dogma. Indeed, the brothers descend into this very type of argument and are constantly at odds. Peter and Martin vie for the attentions of various monarchs, while Jack becomes more extreme, developing an aversion to music. He also has his own set of followers who believe that they have an essence within themselves that must be released for the members to learn from each other. In the end, the author loses his train of thought. We can assume that the brothers argue into perpetuity. 

The conclusion discusses endings and whether the book will sell. Then we come back to Martin, Peter, and Jack’s squabbles, as well as a discussion of the nature of war. In “A Project for the Universal Benefit of Mankind,” Swift suggests that every reader go to Australia, which was a penal colony. This implies that he thinks his readers and devotees will end up there, along with himself. 

A Tale of a Tub takes its own winding, unique course to set up an allegory for the state of religion in the early 18th century. The reader learns about Swift’s satirical view of religion, as well as about the nature of critique, tangential thought, and writing itself.

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Chapters 1-4