Swift is better known for his later works (Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal in particular) and having read those before turning to this, it’s easy to see why. In fact, I’m very glad I did it that way round or I might have never had the courage to face the others. A Tale of a Tub is not an easy read. For a start, it lacks a cohesive structure, but as with all dated satire, references can be very hard to pinpoint.
Thankfully, it starts out pretty simply. Three brothers are left coats in their father’s will which instructs them not to make any alterations to them at all. Of course, as fashions change, they make every effort they can to read the will to see what’s allowed and what isn’t. And where their wishes are not granted, they find a loophole to enable them to gratify themselves.
The three brothers are fairly obviously the Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist branches of the church and they come in for some
stinging satire being the main targets throughout the book. In this writing, you can easily see the genius that was to set Swift apart from his generation. In fact, it’s a measure of his genius that his satire is very, very much relevant today; I finished the book while gay marriage became legal in the UK and heard members of the Church of England speaking out in support of it.
But what makes this book a tad difficult is that Swift has not knocked his work into something of a comprehensive whole. There are digressions all over the place. In fact, there are digressions explicitly about digressions! Sure, there is a lot of license when writing satire but this didn’t work for me. I was grateful that this was a pretty short one.
So, an important book because it shows the Swift that was to come. But not one I’ll be rereading before I die.
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Key: Legacy | Plot / toPic | Characterisation / faCts | Readability | Achievement | Style
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