Swift criticizes by employing the literary device called satire in which the author exposes folly or absurdity in the behavior of an authority or society. His works are skeptical and sarcastic as well as intelligent and enjoyable. Swift’s writing and patriotism influenced British literature profoundly. With it he taught the reader to question injustice and society’s conception of civilization. His works continue to impact British literature and the body of its readers to the present.
The satire in A Tale of a Tub is historically novel for several reasons. First, Swift more or less invented prose parody. He explains that his work is, in several places, a “parody,” which is where he imitates the style of persons he wishes to expose. What is interesting is that the word “parody” had not been used for prose before, and the definition he offers is arguably a parody of John Dryden defining “parody” in the Discourse of Satire. Prior to Swift, parodies were imitations designed to bring mirth, but not primarily in the form of mockery.Additionally, Swift’s satire is relatively unique in that he offers no resolutions. While he ridicules any number of foolish habits, he never offers the reader a positive set of values to embrace. While this type of satire became more common as people imitated Swift, later, Swift is quite unusual in offering the readers no way out. He does not persuade to any position, but he does persuade readers from an assortment of positions. This is one of the qualities that has made the Tale Swift’s least-read major work.
A Tale of a Tub is a mass of text seemingly thrown together with the purpose of deliberately confusing the reader, but its digressions upon digressions cannot mask the inevitable theme of loss, which is ultimately found in all of Swift’s works. The satire holds the present against an ideal of past perfection, and the comparison always shows the modern to be lacking. The church adulterates religion; moderns, the ancients; critics, the author. The narrator of Swift’s text seems to believe that the moment a great work or idea is put forth, it can be pure, but will always degrade with time. Because it is impossible to return to this former state, there is a heavy sense of disappointment that weighs down the more transparent wit and humor. The entire tale could be nothing more than a joke, which is aimed at not only the moderns and the church, but the audience as well. But no matter how many crude attacks Swift makes, the purpose of the story is not just to laugh at the expense of others, but to mourn the fall of an ideal that can never exist again.
It is impossible to return to an original source in the Tale because it seems as if the narrator holds a model of a linear time-line in his head. As time passes, the distance between each passing moment and the originating point must increase, and any attempt to return to the beginning must fail. Just as it is impossible for someone living in the eighteenth century to return to the first, a man who is taught to be a modern can never think exactly like an ancient. Because of this view, the narrator can almost be seen as a modern-day phenomenologist. This philosophy asserts the impossibility of observing any object as it actually is, since the viewer is separated from the object and only has a representation of it inside the mind. Once disconnected with a source, all that can be known of it is derived from a limited, outside perspective that is warped by the distance between the observer and the object being studied. In short, the further people are separated from the classics or religion, the more skewed their view of them becomes.
The main grievances of A Tale of a Tub is not only the fact that society is so separated from the origins of these subjects, but that it tries to earn the virtues they promise through a modern method rather than imitating the circumstances in which they were created. Phenomenologists believe that the closest a person can get to holding an accurate representation of anything is to extract the interpretations and personal ideas the viewer has added from the object itself. Swift writes this scathing satire in part to criticize those that do not even attempt this. Once the great classical ideas were presented, each year that followed further separated the circumstances of the reader from that of the author. By Swift’s time, the gap between the cultures was so wide that the majority who wished to learn these ideas had to read translations, dissect each section into small parts and insert contemporary comments. But, rather than studying ancient texts from the modern perspective that is the very cause of the gap, it is much more beneficial to be immersed in the classics and to be separated as much as possible from the current. Because Swift’s contemporaries failed to do this, the texts were corrupted through their attempt to apply them to succeeding societies.
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The structure, or more aptly, the deconstruction of the Tale is modelled after the shredding of historical texts by modern thought. The narrator is firmly on the side of the Ancients, and views any deviation from classical works to be degenerative. So the author repeatedly jumps from the allegory of the three brothers to commentaries on critics, digressions and madness to mock the method of his contemporaries. The digressions are just as important as the allegory because he considers them to constitute a major part of all that is wrong with learned society. As he sees it, “…we are wholly indebted to Systems and Abstracts, in which the Modern Fathers of Learning, like prudent Usurers, spent their Sweat for the Ease of Us their Children. For Labor is the Seed of Idleness, and it is the peculiar Happiness of our Noble Age to gather the Fruit” (338). But rather than properly appreciating the gifts of these texts, the moderns reject the study of the Greek and Latin languages. They must then tear the texts apart to understand and benefit from the knowledge held within them, even if it does require compromising the original work.
The narrator’s attitude towards critics follows along much of the same lines, since they too take away from the works they are studying to further their own ends. Hacks, who make up the bulk of this group, prefer to trash literature so they may appear intelligent and discerning. They ruin texts because they stray from the purpose they should be striving for: “â€¦it is the frequent Error of those Men (otherwise very commendable for their Labors) to make Excursions beyond their Talent and their Office, by pretending to point out the Beauties and the Faults; which is no part of their Trade, which they always fail in, which the World never expected from them, nor gave them any thanks for endeavouring at” (271-272). For the narrator, there is only one way to do anything, and that is to remain as close to the original intention as possible. The critics damage the works they analyse as the moderns do the ancients, because they use their own method rather than that which has been assigned for them. Subsequently, the critic is no longer a fair judge, but becomes “a Discoverer and Collector of Writers Faults” (313).
Supposedly, the main subject of the Tale is the history of three primary branches of Christianity: Catholicism, as represented by Peter; the Church of England, represented by Martyn; and the Dissenters, as shown through Jack. The beginning of religion, seen through the father, is pure because it is simple. There is only one man and one doctrine, but this basic structure cannot last since corruption must always occur. The father dies, and there are now three who must uphold God’s will. Greater numbers create a greater opportunity for temptation, and the first to stray is Peter. The narrator then spends a significant portion of the allegory describing how the Catholic Church manipulates the Bible to satisfy its materialistic desires and assert its own authority, which is done in every way from hoarding wealth to worshipping tailors to cursing everyone to hell if they fail to believe it. It becomes intolerant of any opposing view and excommunicates the other two branches. No longer under their elder brother’s influence, Martyn and Jack begin to reform. With the inherited coats symbolising religion and its decorations revealing the superficial state it has fallen into, the two brothers remove the shoulder knots, Indian figures and other unnecessary additions in order to restore their coats to the original condition. But Martyn realizes that removing all the stitching will tear the fabric, and lets some of it remain to ensure that nothing will be damaged. Jack, however, is overcome with zeal and rips his coat in his eagerness to purge all the impurities.
The corruption of the church is a given because almost two thousands years have passed since the beginning of Christianity. What is important in this aspect of the Tale is that three courses of action are detailed which show not only incorrect choices, but also the correct one. The obvious, right choice is represented by Martyn, who follows the advice of the narrator and does his best to recreate the original integrity of the church that existed in the beginning. Even though this can not be exactly replicated, it at least attempts to come as close as possible. Peter does the same as all of the hack critics and follows his own designs with no regard to any damage he might cause. Jack makes the same mistake as the moderns and ruins that which he is wishes to preserve, all because he uses the wrong method. “Whatever Reader desires to have a thorow Comprehension of an Author’s Thoughts, cannot take a better Method, than by putting himself into the Circumstances and Postures of Life, that the Writer was in, upon every important Passage as it flow’d from his Pen; For this will introduce a Parity and strict Correspondence of Idea’s between the Reader and the Author” (286). Though this passage is written in a teasing manner like most of the satire, it is a firm belief held by the narrator. Whether it is reading the works of the ancients, the Bible, or a contemporary author, the most benefit and the least damage will be ensured by mimicking the situation in which a work was written.
But there’s a hopelessness that pervades the Tale, as if the narrator knows that perfection can be imitated, but only a few will bother to try and the result will only be a shadow of what existed before. Only a few words are written to describe the first years in which the church was true to Christianity, and the entire reformation in which Martyn makes his compromise is summed up in one paragraph. The rest of the allegory details each folly of the Catholics and Dissenters with great relish. Far more wit and energy is used and pleasure taken in condemning those that fall short of the ideal than those who struggle to recreate it. Swift dwells on the negative, offering little forgiveness for the sinners and faint praise for the reformers. Once the ideal is lost, all he finds worth commenting on are the faults. Because of the narrator’s pessimism, the best and the worst of mankind are intermixed, as if to show that humans have great potential, but being human also means that it can never be reached. And if the most sublime element of humans is based in the mind, particularly intelligent thought, then the worst is rooted in the physical, i.e., bodily functions. When the narrator makes such conclusions as “the gift of BELCHING” being “the noblest Act of a Rational Creature,” his combining of the highest and lowest aspects of mankind is a reflection of his disappointment that the two must exist together and thereby limit the rise into the intellectual (341). Because he dwells on the worst, not only does he remind the reader of the most base acts of humans, but he writes that it is the greatest we can expect to ever achieve. He implies that the physical is behind most all of our actions, including war: “Having to no purpose used all peaceable Endeavours, the collected part of the Semen, raised and enflamed, became adust, converted to Choler, turned head upon the spinal Duct, and ascended to the Brain. The very same Principle that influences a Bully to break the Windows of a Whore, who has jilted him, naturally stirs up a Great Prince to raise mighty Armies, and dream of nothing but Sieges, Battles, and Victories” (347). Because it is impossible to reach the intellectual greatness of the past, he concentrates on the worst of the body, as if that is all we can ever depend on and might as well be the reasoning behind all we do.
The path that leads to intellectual achievement is very narrow and leaves no room for digression: “Thus, Wit has its Walks and Purlieus, out of which it may not stray the breadth of an Hair, upon peril of being lost” (286). And though a few do attempt to follow it, they can never reach the sublime state that once existed, and every day that passes only limits their potential even more. The narrator does try to guide his readers by making the correct path clear, but he has little expectation that they will heed his advice. He can only see the loss of once was, so he invariably focuses on man’s inescapable decline into hopelessness. Even if he did desire to write in the manner of the great classics he admires rather than just criticizing others for not doing so, it would be pointless. As he sees it, anything he composes could never rival the historical texts because he is so separated from them. He has intensely studied their works and culture, but any attempt to imitate them must fall short of the original. And if his talent cannot be used to add to the glory of the classics, then it might as well be used to condemn the moderns. If all writing is ultimately a corruption of that which preceded it, as the narrator seems to believe, then it is better to write of something that is despised rather than revered.
At times the Tale appears to be nothing more than a prank, due to all of the digressions and unintelligible passages that are inserted. Swift states that he is giving his readers exactly what they want, because mankind “receives much greater Advantage by being Diverted than Instructed,” and happiness “is a perpetual Possession of being well Deceived” (327, 351). Swift views this as the exact problem that is ruining current learning, and puts it under the readers’ nose to frustrate them with the same method they are promoting.
One of the great themes that Swift explores in A Tale of a Tub is the madness of pride involved in believing one’s own age to be supreme and the inferiority of derivative works. One of the attacks in the tale was on those who believe that being readers of works makes them the equals of the creators of works.