I haven’t reviewed a book in a while, so let’s do it!
What was it about?
It is near impossible to answer this question. It is mostly an allegory on the Reformation and an implied defense of the Church of England. However, every other chapter is a digression (A Digression Concerning Critics, A Digression in the Modern Kind, A Digression in Praise of Digressions, and A Digression Concerning Madness). The digression chapters are supposed to infuriate the reader because they have nothing to do with the story and often aren’t about anything at all. There are also a couple of prefaces at the start of the work. Finally, Swift loves insert random Latin quotes into his works. I believe that some of the quotes in this satire were in fake Latin. Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub is both a satire on religion and on the literary and political movements of seventeenth-century England.
What did I think of it?
I have taken two graduate courses on seventeenth-century French literature, so I have a basic understanding of the literary movements of the period. I also have more than a little obsession with Christian history. But even with that background I had difficulty following A Tale of a Tub. The religious satire was clearly a defense of the the Church of England. A coat given by a father to three of his sons represents the Apostolic faith. The three sons are named Peter, Martin, and Jack. I’ll let you guess who the three sons represent. The religious satire was OK. It was a bit too obvious for my liking. Oddly enough, I preferred the digression chapters even though they infuriated me. While I had difficulty understanding them (which I believe is the point) I noticed that Swift was ridiculing contemporary publishing and the Battle of the Ancients and the Moderns. In fact, the companion work (which I reviewed in 2015) is called The Battle of the Books. He also made a reference to Erasmus’ Praise of Folly. I love it when I am able to recognize intertextuality. I would like to revisit the digressions at some point because I’m sure I missed a lot the first time around. But again, I’m not sure if I was supposed to read them carefully.
A Tale of a Tub was brilliant in its construction even if the religious satire fell a bit flat. It reminded me of Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist, which I definitely will be reviewing soon. Swift is a difficult satirist to read because he addresses seventeenth-century English society. But that is also why I enjoy reading Swift. He encourages me to work for my humor. I hope than in a few years I will be able to appreciate A Tale of a Tub more.
“Having thus paid my due deference and acknowledgment to an established custom of our newest authors, by a long digression unsought for, and a universal censure unprovoked; by forcing into the light, with much pains and dexterity, my own excellencies and other men’s defaults, with great justice to myself and candour to them, I now happily resume my subject, to an infinite satisfaction both of the reader and the author.”