A Tale of a Tub
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
A Tale of a Tub was the first major work written by Jonathan Swift, composed between 1694 and 1697 and published in 1704. It is probably his most difficult satire, and possibly his most masterly. The Tale is a prose parody which is divided up into sections of "digression" and "tale." The "tale" presents a consistent satire of religious excess, while the digressions are a series of parodies of contemporary writing in literature, politics, theology, Biblical exegesis, and medicine. The overarching parody is of enthusiasm, pride, and credulity.
During the Restoration period in England, the print revolution began to change every aspect of society. It became possible for anyone to spend a small amount of money and have his or her opinions published as a broadsheet. It also became possible for nearly anyone to gain access to the latest discoveries in science, literature, and political theory, as books became less expensive and digests and "indexes" of the sciences grew more numerous. The change in British society brought about by the print revolution was roughly analogous to our own experiences with the Internet. Just as now a silly person may spend a small amount of money and publish silly opinions, so it was then. Just as now we are confronted with a staggering array of conspiracy theories, "secret" histories, signs of the apocalypse, "secrets" of politicians, "revelations" of prophets, alarms about household products, hoaxes, and outright fraud, so it was then. The problem for them, as for us, was telling true from false, credible from impossible. Swift writes A Tale of a Tub in the guise of someone who is excited and gullible about all the things the new world has to offer. This narrator is in love with the modern age and feels that he is quite the equal (or superior) of any author who ever lived because he, unlike them, possesses 'technology' and opinions that are just plain newer. Swift seemingly asks the question of what a person with no discernment but with a thirst for knowledge would be like, and the answer is the narrator of Tale of a Tub.
Swift was annoyed by people who were so eager to possess the newest knowledge that they failed to pose skeptical questions. If he was not a particular fan of the aristocracy, he was a sincere opponent of democracy (which was often viewed then as the sort of "mob rule" that led to the worst abuses of the English Interregnum.) The cultural stakes were high, and Swift's satire was intended to provide a genuine service by painting the portrait of conspiracy minded and injudicious writers.
At that time in England, politics, religion and education were unified in a way that they are not now. The monarch was the head of the state church. Each school (secondary and university) had a political tradition. (Officially, there was no such thing as "Whig and Tory" at the time, but the labels are useful and were certainly employed by writers themselves.) The two major parties were associated with religious and economic groups. The implications of this unification of politics, class, and religion are important. Although it is somewhat extreme and simplistic to put it this way, failing to be for the Church was failing to be for the monarch; having an interest in physics and trade was to be associated with dissenting religion and the Whig Party. When Swift attacks the lovers of all things modern, he is thereby attacking the new world of trade, of dissenting religious believers, and, to some degree, an emergent portion of the Whig Party.