A Tale of a Tub: A Text that Thematizes Interpretation

Dr. Morillo ENG582


In all parts of the Tale Swift engages consistently with how we read and how we often misread—a key issue for any Protestant cleric who needs his congregants to read well and independently! After the page in the Oxford ed. you’ll see the topics he includes:


Page     topic

20, Preface    

a parody of the assumptions of biographical criticism, that it is always necessary or better to know facts about the author in order to interpret well: “Whatever reader desires to have a thorough comprehension of an author’s thoughts cannot take a better method than by putting himself into the circumstances and posture of life that the writer was in upon every important passage as it flowed from his pen . . . I have recollected that the shrewdest pieces of this treatise were conceived in bed in a garret…”


21, Preface

a parodic version of a nonetheless true assumption of allegorical interpretation, that obscurity hides profundity: “where I am not understood it shall be concluded that something very profound and useful is couched underneath”


27, The Introduction

parody of a theory of meaning extrapolated from materialist philosophy (such as practiced by Epicurus, Lucretius)

“that air being a heavy body, and therefore (according to the system of Epicurus) continually descending, must needs be more so when loaden and pressed down by words, which are also bodies of much weight and gravity, as it is manifest from those deep impressions they make and leave upon us”


28, The Introduction

allegorical interpretation’s premise: “a great mystery, being a type, a sign, an emblem, a shadow, a symbol bearing an analogy”


30, The Introduction

call to Moderns to better their reading by interpreting allegorically: “But the greatest maim given to the general reception which the writings of our society hath formerly received . . . hath been a superficial vein among many readers of the present age, who will by no means be persuaded to inspect beyond the surface and rind of things . . . Grubbean sages have always chosen to convey their precepts and their arts shut up within the vehicles of types and fables”


37, Tale Sect. II

premise of contextual, historical-cultural criticism: “knowing the state of dispositions and opinions in an age so remote, he may better comprehend those great events which were the issue of them. I advise therefore the courteous reader to peruse with a world of application”



41, Tale Sect. II

that all meanings of a word are always applicable (violates our check the OED rule)

“However, after some pause the brother so often mentioned for his erudition, who was well skilled in criticisms, had found in a certain author which he said should be nameless, that the same word which in the will is called fringe, does also signify a broomstick, and doubtless ought to have the same interpretation in this paragraph.”


42, Tale Sect. II

how dogma arises from refusal to read: “they concerted matters together and agreed unanimously to lock up their father’s Will in a strongbox brought out of Greece or Italy (I have forgot which) and trouble themselves no further to examine it, but only refer to its authority whenever they thought fit.”


62, Digresson in Modern Kind

the more recent a text is, the more authority it has: “I claim an absolute authority in right, as the freshest modern, which gives me a despotic power over all authors before me.”


83 Tale Sect VIII

contradicts his preference for allegory

“In proportion that credulity is a more peaceful possession of the mind than curiosity, so far preferable is that wisdom which converses about the surface, to that pretended philosophy which enters into the depth of things, and then comes gravely back with the informations and discoveries that in the inside they are good for nothing.”


89, Further Digression

reception theory suited to allegory

“Readers may be divided into three classes—the superficial, the ignorant, and the learned; and I have with much felicity fitted my pen to the genius and advantage of each. The superficial reader will be strangely provoked to laughter, which clears the breast and the lungs, is sovereign against the spleen, and the most innocent of all diuretics.  The ignorant reader (between whom and the former the distinction is extremely nice) will find himself disposed to stare; which is an admirable remedy for ill eyes, serves to raise and enliven the spirits, and wonderfully helps perspiration. But the reader truly learned, chiefly for whose benefit I wake when others sleep, and sleep when others wake, will here find sufficient matter to employ his speculations for the rest of his life.”


90, Further Digression

allegorical interpreter’s premise: “wise philosophers hold all writings to be fruitful, in the proportion they are dark”


102, Conclusion

how publication bestows assumed value, publishing any text is analogous to preferment in the Church: “For I have remarked many a towardly word to be wholly neglected or despised in discourse, which has passed very smoothly, with some consideration and esteem, after its preferment and sanction in print.”


A Map of Misreadings.


Swift is cagey and does not simply make literal reading the correct way to interpret. After all, he can’t ban all kinds of allegory (other-speak) without also banning its cousin irony, certainly needed to read any Swift.


25 Sect 1, Introduction

We hear that Socrates “was suspended in a basket to help contemplation,” exemplifying the value of edifices in the air to orators. The hack here neglects literary context, treating as historical fact was is, in fact, itself a parody. Aristophanes in The Clouds had ridiculed Socrates’ loftiness by literalizing the metaphor of “lofty ideas” and hanging him up in a basket over the stage. This trick of making what’s supposed to be a metaphor literal is Swift’s favorite comic device.


53 Tale Sect. IV

“Lord Peter’s bulls . . . had two peculiar marks which extremely distinguished them from the bulls of Jason, and which I have not met together in the description of any other monster beside that in Horace

Varias inducere plumas;  and Atrum desinit piscem [to insert many colored feathers turns it into a black fish]

For these had fishes tails yet upon occasion could outfly any bird in the air”


The same error. Here the hack takes what should be read figuratively and treats it as merely literal. His description of Peter’s papal bull assumes Horace was recording some seen monster, when instead Horace here in Ars Poetica, a treatise on interpretation, uses the idea of hybrid monstrosity as a metaphor to condemn unrestrained imagination. In fact, Horace’s continued complaint makes an idea wry way for Swift to undercut his hack while accurately characterizing the hack’s text: “Suppose a painter meant to attach a horse’s neck to the head of a man, and to put fancy work of many-colored feathers on limbs of creatures picked at random? . . . Believe me, Pisones, a book will be very much like that painting if the meaningless images are put together like the dreams of a man in a fever” (Horace)


72 Digression in Praise of Digressions

The Hack continues to call the Scythians the intellectual ancestors of the Moderns, and recalls Herodotus on the Scythians. Here he should read allegorically, but fails to. He claims the Scythians were a great race of critics because “among whom the number of pens was so infinite that the Grecian eloquence had no other way of expressing it than by saying that in the regions far to the north, it was hardly possible for a man to travel, the very air was so replete with feathers.” In this elaborate joke on quill pens Swift first stresses the northern local to tie the Scythians, to Herodotus merely barbarians, both to the moderns and to his consistent attack on the north in Britain as the site of the Scots, for Swift the worst dissenters and followers of Jack. What the hack next reads as literal feathers is in fact Herodotus’ figurative description of a heavy snow—what really hindered his travel around the Black Sea regions of Scythia, very cold for any Greek. Best of all, Herodotus is explicit about reading and meaning in this section: “No doubt the Scythians and their neighbors when they talk of the feathers really mean snow.” (Histories, 4.280)