A Tale of a Tub today begins with an “Apology” defending it against those who argued that it was an immoral book. (The Apology was added in 1710.) The author responds that he used satire to expose the follies of religion and learning. If a person wrote a treatise about the flaws in law or physics, lawyers and students of physics would be grateful, not angry. The author also defends the book against charges of plagiarism, acknowledging only minimal borrowing from others, and arguing that the work is original. The writer also relates the problems he encountered publishing the book; the incomplete nature of the final product is due in part to a publishing mistake, not an oversight. The postscript to the apology condemns a recently published Notes on the Tale of a Tub, which he says is a misinterpretation.
At one time the text began with an “Advert” or advertisement, identifying “treatises written by the same author, including such items as “A Panegyrical Essay upon the Number THREE,” “A General History of Ears,” and similarly odd works.
Next comes a letter to the Right Honourable John Lord Sommers from the bookseller, in which the bookseller offers to dedicate the piece to Sommers, which would help the book sell. He noticed the words “DETUR DIGNISSIMO” on the present book but did not know Latin, and neither did the authors he worked with, so he got the Curate of the Parish to translate it: “Let it be given to the worthiest.” The Curate also told him that it meant the book should be dedicated “to the sublimest genius of the age.” The bookseller went around to different “wits” he knew, asking them who it could refer to, and they all said it seemed directed at themselves or, at least, Sommers.
The bookseller has examined one or two hundred dedications in order to write one here. He also asked the wits for advice, and they brought back a huge list of virtues for him to use, though the words seemed like nothing extraordinary, and it was a waste of money to get their help. Others, however, examined the list, or at least the first few lines, and determined that the list fit Sommers uniquely. It would be more interesting to find that Sommers had done something brave or at least fashionable, but it is not so interesting just to discuss virtues like eloquence, wisdom, and justice. There are many virtues to mention, but it seems that historians do not believe in the truth of lists of virtues put in dedications, so this is another reason not to go into detail. A final reason is that Sommers may have already exerted too much patience to keep reading.
Next, a letter from the bookseller to the reader explains that the bookseller is publishing this without the author’s permission, six years after receiving the manuscript. The author had given it up for lost, and the bookseller will not reveal what happened. It seems that another, altered version of this text has already appeared, so the bookseller is bringing out “the whole work in its naturals.” But it is too hard for the bookseller to understand, and it would be helpful to have a “key” to unlock “the more difficult parts.”
Next is “The Epistle Dedicatory to his Royal Highness Prince Posterity,” dated December 1697, in which the author provides the actual dedication to the book. The author made good use of leisure time, such as rainy days, to write the book. Posterity has important virtues, given that the future is the “sole arbiter of the productions of human wit in this polite and most accomplished age.” Posterity seems to have little regard for most of what has been written lately, which is generally true of any plethora of present writers. Most works fade away—and quickly. For instance, of the best 136 contemporary poets, it seems that none will last. All of this is due to posterity’s “governor,” fate. As another example, many works whose authors thought were great, hours later are gone and replaced with more writings, withering away as fast as fashion and the news.
The best names the author can offer as poets or writers are people whose writings are nevertheless hard to find, like John Dryden, for his translation of Virgil; Nahum Tate; Tom Durfey; critics Rymer and Dennis; and Dr. Bentley with his “yoke-mate” William Wotton (whose writings have been published bound together).
Finally, the Preface to A Tale of a Tub begins with an explanation of the point of this exercise. As the metaphor goes, the Ship of State (and of the Church) is in danger of being critiqued by various writers. The writers tend to draw their critique from Hobbes’ Leviathan which, like a whale, is formidable indeed. Just as seamen can distract a whale by giving it something amusing to play with—an empty tub—it has been proposed to give these writers a bunch of vapid “schemes of religion and government” to think about and write about, diverting them from critiquing the actual Church and State. The present work is intended to similarly distract these writers: “it was decreed that, in order to prevent these Leviathans from tossing and sporting with the commonwealth, which of itself is too apt to fluctuate, they should be diverted from that game by ‘A Tale of a Tub.’” The long-term solution is to corral these critics into a new Academy where they will not do much damage. Meanwhile, this tale should provide plenty of grist for the mill.
He also discusses the nature of introductions and prefaces in general. Writers waste a lot of words complaining about people wasting words, and go on to waste more. Perhaps once a book is written, there is nothing left to think or write. Also, writing wit for the moment is a very delicate, fleeting, contingent business. The author argues that to really understand a writer’s work, one should put oneself in the milieu of the writer at the time of writing. Thus, one should realize that the present writer conceived of his ideas “in bed in a garret” and in illness and poverty.
He adds that there is not “one grain of satire intermixed” with this discourse. Satirists just slap the rears of the public, which has little effect; they are like weeds or broken razors. “Besides,” he writes, “those whose teeth are too rotten to bite are best of all others qualified to revenge that defect with their breath.” Yet, satires are easier to come up with than panegyrics, since there are but few virtues and many vices. Also, in England, people are praised for denigrating the morals of the people, so long as nobody important is personally named.
All of this material in A Tale of a Tub is introductory; the actual tale has not yet begun. Nevertheless we here meet the most important character, the author, not to be confused with Swift himself, except perhaps in the Apology. We also meet the bookseller and, through him, some of the people who have interacted with the bookseller.
The “Apology for the, &c.” appears to be a rare moment of candor, as Swift is claiming to speak in his own voice directly to the reader. Knowing that he is a great satirist, however, we must continue to be skeptical. Swift claims that the poor reception of A Tale of a Tub has bothered him; he appears genuinely upset by bad reviews. His tone suggests wounded pride and arrogance, deriding those who might think that his work is immoral. Swift writes that he “wrote only to the men of wit and taste” (p. 21). That is, this was a book not for the common man but for an elite. His tone is also defensively self-serving in the declaration that his work is uniquely his own when he argues, “it was never disputed to be an original” (p. 16). Yet, this self-importance is very close to what the author satirizes about other writers later in the introductory material. It may well be that Swift found a way to defend himself and at the same time acknowledge his own vanity.
The discussion of the publishing mistake suggests that all of this is satire after all, even though the points should be taken with some seriousness. After all, satire is often meant to offend, but indirectly. The hilarious “Advert” indirectly offends all such writers who think they are important enough to write significant works about the number three or the history of ears.
The letter dedicated to Lord Sommers is of course not really a letter from the bookseller; Swift is poking fun at those who may misunderstand his treatise, which he is doing throughout his work. Swift signals that he knows his book will not be understood; he expects it. He appeals to the pride of the reader by repeating the idea in the “Apology” that this book is only for “the worthiest” of men. While in Plato’s work “The Apology of Socrates,” where Socrates is said to go around to different citizens proving how ignorant they are despite their thinking that they are smart, the bookseller is an unwitting Socrates, proving the same point without even knowing it. That is, he shows how vain everyone is when they think that “the worthiest” most likely refers to them. There is a much deeper lesson here; this very work of Swift’s is indeed only for a small elite, the true “worthiest,” who will understand Swift’s jokes, see the satire for what it is, and learn what Swift has to teach about religion, which is a very difficult subject to treat head-on, since it is politically dangerous to criticize religion, especially during Swift’s era around 1700.
Yet, if you think yourself so smart that you are in the elite, chances are good that you are like the others, thinking you are wise when you really are not. At the least, superficial readers are going to give up if they try to read the dense prose and winding sentences. Reading this work takes a lot of work, and if you find yourself skipping sentences or paragraphs because they just seem too confusing, this work is perhaps not meant for you, or at least not yet. If you do find yourself getting the jokes, you are becoming well prepared to read the main tale.
Meanwhile, the bookseller’s lengthy praise of Lord Sommers serves Sommers’ alleged vanity, satirizing the common sycophantic praise that one often finds at the beginning of books, as well as the stroking praise that the lower class generally offers to the upper classes, which is a common theme for Swift.
The letter from the bookseller to the reader is likewise a parody of booksellers. The bookseller says he worked on the manuscript a bit himself, not respecting the author’s intentions. This must have been a wildly hopeless task, given how profoundly he fails to understand the work. He only published it because someone else published some form of it first, and he did not want to lose out on possible profits.
The author assumes a properly submissive tone in the letter to “prince posterity,” calling him “your highness” and other grand monikers. It was something of a tradition to write letters such as these before the publication of a work that one knew would be controversial in one’s own time, but not necessarily controversial in the judgment of a future, more enlightened age. Yet, many people who think they are too good for their time are quite wrong, and once again the message is to be humble about one’s true worth as a writer or as a reader.
The Preface to A Tale of a Tub finally gets to explaining the work’s title. Just like sailors distract a whale by throwing a tub into the water, this author is distracting the various readers who might otherwise trouble the Church and the State. Instead of giving them the deep critiques that could really do harm, this work gives them an extended allegory that will keep them occupied trying to figure out which details refer to which realities about the religions. In a sense, it is suggested, this is also what a good university might do, keeping the smart but impractical people away from government!
The “Introduction” satirizes introductions. The introductions never seem to end, as Section One is also an introduction. With this structure, Swift mocks the high-handedness of certain authors who pen elaborate prefaces describing what they intend to write--instead of devoting time to what they are actually writing.
Overall, Swift offers that a really good piece of writing is a hard nut to crack; one cannot understand a piece merely as a superficial reader. On the one hand, many writers write long, winding, impenetrable introductions, thinking they are being profound. On the other hand, Swift’s introduction is long, winding, and nearly impenetrable, parodying the others, yet Swift is doing his best to say something profound. If nothing else, he demonstrates the folly of mankind and saves us the time of putting up with the huge cloud of second-rate writers. Swift masterfully satirizes a style at the same time that he uses that style productively.