“A True and Faithful Narrative” begins with a lecture given by Mr. Whiston at the Royal Exchange. The narrator lists the men who were present at the lecture. Mr. Whiston declares that he cannot make his prepared lecture, and pauses for a long time, apparently in mental effort or prayer. He predicts that next Friday, the world will end because a comet will strike. The comet will appear in the sky at five minutes after five.
Within a couple of hours, everyone in the city is aware of the prediction. The narrator struggles with the negligence of his religious duty. He speaks with his Quaker friend, who doubts the prediction. The comet appears in the sky on Wednesday morning, however, just as Mr. Whiston predicted.
Clergymen assemble to offer prayers. The narrator goes to church with his wife for the first time in many weeks, and they encounter a large crowd. Powerful, rich men fear the judgment and review their lives with worry. The young ladies get ready to appear naked at judgment by bathing themselves. The lawyers likewise worry about their fate, and judges are relieved that they are no longer attorneys. The soldiers in the army are quite content. The physicians appear to be unmoved but display signs of religious conviction. Among the clergy, the higher his position is, the greater is his fear.
A few people express joy, including criminals who were to be executed. A man who has been a churchgoer all his life and is now deadly ill, likewise is pleased with the news.
The day before the comet has been predicted to strike, business slows down in the city. There are, however, rushes on the banks, and there are several thousand marriages between men and their mistresses.
The wealthy begin to give their money away to the beggars. A few very rich and powerful members of town give a large donation to the church. Many ladies make confessions to their husbands that one or more of their children are bastards.
As the day approaches, everyone is in church, although none of the religious denominations join and pray together, because they believe that the others are to be damned, and they alone will be saved.
By the end of the day on Friday, the comet has not stuck. The population begins to mock the prophecy. They disown the idea that they displayed any signs of religion. They spend the next day in their usual sinful activities.
The first aspect of satire here comes in the person of Mr. Whiston and the prediction itself. Swift is making fun of these public lectures in which people make grand declarations that have little to do with reality. Swift suggests that sometimes these predictions may have the appearance of truth but nothing else; the prophecy is false.
The prophecy was not completely false; depending on which comet it was, a good scientist in theory could have predicted its appearance. Just like those who predict eclipses and thereby amaze and control a superstitious population, Whiston has, perhaps by chance, stunned the population into moral compliance with religion.
Swift also satirizes specific aspects of society within this piece. His poor opinion of lawyers is expressed in his decision to make the lawyers incredibly nervous as the day of judgment approaches. His argument that the upper classes do not lead a Christian life is expressed in the elaborate charitable gifts made several prominent men and women, who at the least think they can earn a spiritual benefit through their last-minute donation. The ideal person is the longtime churchgoer who is consistent about his principles and practices regardless of the date of the end of the world, a person represented by the churchgoing sick man who is joyful about the end of the world.
Ultimately, Swift is satirizing a society’s religious hypocrisy in general, implying that people are naturally sinful and prone to slip in their convictions. Swift suggests that religion is entirely an expedient for most people, serving their immediate needs. He pokes fun at the displays of religious excess in the story, which he does not portray as sincere. The narrator himself is a sinful man who has not been to church in weeks and who does not intend to go to church until he believes he is about to die. Similarly, the entire population of the town is sinful prior to the prediction, quickly returning to their sinful behavior when the prediction proves to be false.
Religious excess and hypocrisy are common themes in Swift’s satires. He addresses these topics with force in “A True and Faithful Narrative” in a way that many readers would understand. Instead of getting the point across by argument or hiding it in allegory, Swift gives the people a story with a fairly plain meaning.