Friday, September 14, 2012

This Week's Book: A Tale of a Tub

Getting back to the old stuff. Apparently the 20th century is just too recent these days.

September 9-15: A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift

Literature (1704 - 140 pp.) 

A Tale of a Tub is the first full-length book by Jonathan Swift I've ever read, "A Modest Proposal" having been the extent of my reading before this. I wanted to read something from relatively early in his career. I'm calling this fiction but it bleeds into non-fiction in that decidedly Swift way, satirizing the political events of the day so openly it becomes the treatise he describes rather than a novel. It centres on three brothers - Peter, Martin and Jack - who represent Catholicism, Lutheranism and Calvinism. Most of the treatise is a figurative telling of various historical events, especially from the Reformation up until its release, with occasional digressions into the general state of literary criticism. 

Much of A Tale of a Tub is identifiable now. Some of the more blatant ones are that no one cares about good writing anymore, that two of the three types of critics are insufferable, and that Catholic clergymen adorn themselves too ornately while Calvinist clergymen are too rigid in their rejection of said ornate adornment. Swift backs Luther more than the other religious figures, using Luther's personage to reflect the idea of balance between church wealth and humility. Swift's position in the Church of Ireland is evident throughout the treatise, but in a way that offers more insight into his perspective than into any particular hatred of the others. The association of Catholic doctrine with bodily filth, for example (and Swift's example here is the unnecessary, ritualistic and ultimately fatal cure for worms in the spleen), is at least as old as The Faerie Queene's depiction of the monster vomiting papers. The attacks on literary criticism are tougher to appraise, as religions have lasted far more solidly than specific schools of literary criticism, but the William Congreve quotation that "And how they're disappointed when they're pleased" (58) is one that should continue to be appreciated as it ages. 

A Tale of a Tub certainly has its place in the canon of early modern religious attack literature. It helps to have a background in early modern English history and/or literature, although I suppose this treatise could be useful background for reading Swift's contemporaries. Then, of course, "A Digression in Praise of Digressions" (83) is one of the best chapter titles I have ever seen. Swift's wit is present as always. 

NOTE: I have the Penn State ebook. That is where I've drawn the page references. 

Ease of Reading: 2 
Educational Content: 6

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