A Tale of a Tub was first published by the Irish clergyman and novelist Jonathan Swift in 1704; it is the first and perhaps most difficult of all his satires. The title is thought to refer to a dissenting priest’s pulpit, and the work is a biting parody on the religious extravagances that Swift perceived among the clergy at the start of the 18th century. The narrative is written using a complex though playful technique of interlinking stories concerning the lives of three brothers.
The story digresses into separate parodies throughout, and is arranged in a fragmentary style, with each section dealing with a unique but pertinent topic. These include Catholicism, Anglicanism and dissenting religious sects, and the work of contemporary literary figures such as John Dryden. Perhaps most importantly the Tale engages directly with the debates concerning the ‘Ancients and Moderns’ that raged during the early 1700s. Swift (a natural conservative by persuasion) savages the perceived progress of science and philosophy as part of the early Enlightenment: he considered these movements to be inconsequential when compared with the older and established wisdom of Greek and Roman writers.
A Tale of Tub is particularly noteworthy for its experimentation with, and departure from, the literary conventions of the period (a characteristic that is also evident in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy). Narrators’ voices and literary genres switch from section to section as a way of taking the work in radically new directions. Swift also concentrates his satirical fire on the new literary and publishing experiments that emerged in the early 18th century, particularly the apparent obsession of printers with producing endless numbers of novels and short pamphlets. By peppering A Tale of the Tub with excessive punctuation and typographical marks (asterisks, pointing hands and dashes, for example), Swift (like Sterne) parodies the enthusiasm for the publications that characterised the print market. Likewise, the work sets out to lampoon the uncritical consumption of contemporary literary prose, which Swift believed too easily led readers to an over-interpretation of meaning.
This issue of A Tale of a Tub is particularly noteworthy for the woodcut illustrations that punctuate the text. For example, there is a striking image of a priest reprimanding the congregation down below, with a gallows and theatre shown in the background. The frontispiece also illustrates a whale distracted by a barrel thrown overboard by sailors: an allegory, perhaps, of how the text was designed to draw the attention of political and religious dissenters away from the affairs of the ‘ship’ of state.