Section One, the “Introduction,” begins with a discussion of the ways that writers rise above the crowd and make their thoughts known, including the pulpit, the ladder (or place for making lectures), and the stage itinerant (which at the time could also refer to the gallows). It proceeds to satirize introductions, pointing out, for instance, that a good writer is said to hide his best points rather than state them plainly, like hiding a nut inside a shell. (Meanwhile, this is exactly what Swift is doing, at length.) He finally introduces his treatise proper, noting an original intention to split it into forty sections.
Section Two begins with a man speaking to his three sons, Peter, Jack and Martin, before his death. He is bequeathing to them very special coats, which will never wear and which will always fit. He gives his sons instructions for caring well for his coats. The sons travel for seven years and take good care of their coats. Then, they meet three women, with whom they fall in love, and they proceed to commit all kinds of sins. The three brothers want to put shoulder-knots onto their coats (shoulder-knots being in fashion) but, since there is nothing explicit in their father’s will about shoulder-knots, they instead look for the mere letters in the word “shoulder-knots” in their father’s will. Upon finding those letters, or close to those letters, they are satisfied that such an alteration is acceptable. The brothers continue to alter their coats, according to fashion trends, always finding some justification for the alteration within their father’s will.
Section Three is the first official digression, “A Digression Concerning Critics.” The three brothers’ story is interrupted as the writer discusses the nature of criticism and makes a distinction between the “critic” and the “true critic.” The latter has more natural instinct and is drawn to greater genius—liabilities rather than virtues, the reader suspects. He also discusses the difference between the Ancients and the Moderns, as well as Ancient and Modern ways of thought.
Section Four returns to his narrative about the brothers. Peter claims he is the eldest brother and therefore is due all sorts of titles and honors. He embarks on several projects: buying a continent, devising new remedies, erecting a “whispering-house,” creating an office of insurance, supporting street shows, inventing a new kind of pickle, breeding a new kind of bull, and handing out pardons to criminals. Peter becomes rich and has delusions about his self-importance. His brothers try to intervene, but they realize that they are unable to stop his fits of madness, and they leave him. They revisit their father’s will, translating it into common speech, and they come to a new understanding of what their father desired of them.
“A Digression in the Modern Kind” now begins by justifying the very act of digression. It argues that sometimes diversion is more instructive than instruction. This digression resumes the Ancients versus Moderns topic and criticizes Modern forms of thought.
Section Six returns to the brothers. Peter is still rich and comfortable, but his two brothers are destitute, and they live together for comfort. They return to their two coats and their father’s will, trying to return entirely to their father’s desires. They therefore begin to remove the adornments affixed to the coat. Martin does this slowly and carefully, while Jack, in his anger, removes the adornments all at once, tearing the coat. In this way, the brothers begin to grow apart.
“The Digression in Praise of Digressions” now discusses how certain types of argument can be illuminating, especially when running parallel to certain other types of argument. This digression then evaluates the modern wit, providing suggestions to the reader regarding how to appear witty.
Section Eight discusses the nature of wind and inspiration. The next section, “A Digression Concerning Madness,” mentions Jack briefly because he is considered by the author to be mad. The author discusses the great men who have changed history, many of whom were of religious conviction, and proceeds to tell the story of several men who fit this description. He assesses what it was, mentally, that allowed them to achieve such heights. Madness here is a kind of “excess of vapors” that produces genius. The author suggests that society seek out those young men who appear disturbed and give them power, for it is likely that they possess this “madness” of greatness.
Section Ten begins with a remark that authors provide prefaces or introductions to all sorts of works, offering their thoughts grandly to the world. Thus, the author is doing the same, expressing a wish that his piece be well-received. The author lists different types of readers--the superficial, the ignorant, and the learned--and predicts how each kind reacts to satire. It is for the latter, the learned, that he writes. He then discusses the different types of interpretations that be gleaned from any text, and he offers some interpretations of his own text, noting, for example, that if a reader were to multiply the number of instances of the letter o by seven and then divide it by nine, he would uncover a great mystery.
Section Eleven offers a truism about the kinship of a traveler and his horse, especially when on a difficult journey in which obstacles (such as dogs) are encountered. Finally we return to the story of Jack, who has a very active imagination. Jack returns to his father’s will in order to glean its meaning but, after a while, decides that such a meaning is “deeper” and “darker” than he first thought. He starts finding evidence in his father’s will (which was only about the coats) for all sorts of actions he takes in life. Gradually, Jack begins to become more fanatical, playing tricks and having fits, disliking it when he might hear music or see color. Although they are sworn enemies, Jack and Peter keep running into one another in the city. The author complains about not being able to give more detail about the brothers, but he can summarize their most recent actions: Jack and Peter have teamed up against their brother Martin in order to serve their own agendas. Nevertheless, when Peter gets into trouble, Jack abandons him, and vice versa.
The conclusion declares that a work that is too long is as damaging as a book that is too short, and that there is a time and place for every kind of book. The author describes the conversation with his bookseller that gave rise to this particular book, predicting that he will be an author for the ages. He also describes other authors of his acquaintance, and says that he has come to make many friends.
The blank place in Section One is purposeful, although the author wrote earlier that he lost some of the pages; here, too, he is being satirical. The list of books he has read, with far from accurate descriptions of what those books are actually about, is likewise supposed to be funny; these are not books that one would choose for close examination, and it appears that the narrator has woefully misunderstood those books. This is a central theme: people misunderstand what they read, for a variety of reasons and with a variety of results ranging from the comic to the tragic.
The father in the beginning of the tale, when it finally begins in Section Two, represents God, and his sons the three Western branches of the Christian church. (See the character list for details.) The coats that he bequeaths them represent tradition, and his will, which the sons are supposed to interpret correctly and follow, is an allegory for Scripture. The women with whom the three brothers fall in love are meant to represent the sins of Covetousness, Ambition and Pride. (Duchess d’Argent is the Dame of Silver; Madame de Grands-Titres is the Madame of Great Titles, and the Countess d’Orgueil is the Countess of Pride.) The fact that the brothers so quickly fall in love with these sinful women and soon descend into sin themselves, is commentary on the fragility of religion in human hands. The discussion of the “idol” to whom sacrifices are made is an allegory for a tailor, and the “fashions” with which the brothers become so enamored represent trends in religious or philosophical thought, which cause religions to alter their original structure. When the brothers interpret their father’s will in strange and ridiculous ways (such as looking for the presence of mere letters instead of actual words), Swift is satirizing the all-too-common habit of interpreting Scripture to justify whatever people would like to do.
“A Digression Concerning Critics” is literary parody. The writer mocks the language of criticism itself; the “true” critic is supposedly today’s writer who merely sets himself up as a critic and lets his ideas flow. The reader must suspect that Swift really means that the best critics are the ones who the writer says are extinct—those who genuinely recover the best of the past and who genuinely assess what is good and bad in others’ work. This section also suggests a dichotomy between Ancients and Moderns that he will expand upon elsewhere in “The Battle of the Books.”
In Section Four, Peter’s madness and richness are meant to represent the Catholic Church at its height; his projects such as “buying a new continent” and “erecting a whispering-house” are meant to represent the actions that the Catholic Church took to make admittance into Heaven easier (“buying a new continent,” suggests the introduction of purgatory, and “erecting a new whispering-house” refers to an expansion of confession.) One section refers to the sale of “indulgences,” which the author condemns because they seemed to let people off the hook after committing serious crimes, if they only gave the Church enough money. At the end of the section, the two brothers express the same criticism and get thrown out, which directly reflects the one of the Protestant criticisms of the Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation.
Swift’s literary parody continues with “A Digression in the Modern Kind.” This digression is, as one might now expect, a parody of literary digressions. His main purpose appears to be to parody the way certain philosophers write. For instance, he says ridiculously self-congratulatory things, such as: “I hold myself obliged to give as much light as is possible to into the beauties and excellencies of what I am writing” (p. 95).
In Section Six, when the brothers return to their father’s will, this is a reference to Martin Luther’s and John Calvin’s belief in the “plain sense” of Scripture, and their work to strip Christianity of all the additional non-scriptural elements that Roman Catholicism had added to it, by going back to the original language and practices. Swift’s decision to make Martin and Jack alter their coats differently is representative of how Calvinism was further dissenting from Catholicism than Lutheranism was; John Calvin took his reformation to a greater extreme than Martin Luther did. When Jack rips his coat, the suggestion is that Calvin went too far and ruined the religion by not carefully unfastening the embellishments. In contrast, Martin (Martin Luther) rips off the worst fringes but is careful not to damage the original coat, and even permits some of the embellishments to stay attached so as not to remove the good along with the bad.
In “A Digression in Praise of Digressions,” Swift descends into literary parody again with his suggestions on how to be witty without having to actually read or think: one can simply learn the title or study the index.
Swift’s discussion, in Section Eight, of wind as inspiring (humorously comparing wind to a “belch”) is meant to suggest the nature of religious inspiration, which causes one to reinterpret Scripture or challenge the status quo. “A Digression Concerning Madness” is similarly separate from the main story; its separation, as well as the pieces missing from the text, highlight the very frantic “madness” about which Swift is writing; it is as though the writer himself is mad—unable to return to his main story, unable to present a complete text.
Swift’s defense of madness, here, as not a malady but a mark of superior talent seems to be more sincere than usual. This is a rare moment in which it appears as if Swift actually believes the plain sense of the argument. His later descent into suggesting that young men who are strange or fitful be given command of great armies, however, indicates a return to satire. Section Ten’s failure to return to the story of the three brothers likewise conforms structurally to Swift’s idea of “madness”; the very arrangement of this tale seems mad.
In this section, Swift offers his work to the world in a high-handed way in order to parody those who write such long, self-congratulatory prefaces. His tone appears more earnest as he describes the different types of readers, but he then goes back into satire when he suggests methods of interpreting his work; the idea that the number of instances of the letter o might reveal any sort of mystery in the work is utterly ridiculous, and thus mocks such bizarre literary interpretations.
Swift continues to poke fun at the establishment of literature and learning with his conclusion which, although it has its moments serious in tone, is satirical in the description of Swift’s conversation with his bookseller, describing with mock-drama how his bookseller “looked westward” before answering the question of what Swift ought to write. Likewise, with Swift’s declaration that he will be remembered as an author, he parodies those men who have inflated ideas of their greatness.