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Wednesday, February 01, 2017

A Tale of of a Tub (1704) by Jonathan Swift

The Oxford World's Classics cover of the book containing A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift was the best I could do for an image to accompany this post.

Book Review:
A Tale of of a Tub (1704)
by Jonathan Swift

   Jonathan Swift is a protean figure who sits astride the birth of the novel, not a novelist  himself, but vital in shaping the parameters of what the novel could become.  He's best know for his tales, Gulliver's Travels being best known, and for his satire, the cannibalism preaching Modest Proposal being most remembered in that category.  A Tale of a Tub has elements of both veins of Swift's work.

  Tale of a Tub  is putatively a ham handed parable about a man with three sons, Peter, Martin & Jack. The man is god, his sons represent the Catholic Church, the Church of England and Protestants. Interspersed with the "story" chapters are numerous digressions, where the narrator- who is, in fact, supposed to come off as an idiot- makes numerous observations about the "culture of criticism" circa 1700 or so. You need to have some background in the era to appreciate quips about ancient vs. modern man or to chuckle out loud about the narrator's analysis of the history of criticism, but underneath the oblique references is some trenchant humor about the ease with which the newly empowered feel about venturing their (moronic) opinions about anything & everything.

  The early 18th century bore many resemblances to our current situation, in terms of conditions being rife for the production of a new art form (the novel).  Notably, the spread of the printing press to allow printing of cheap one sheets created a new market for shorter, popular works.  Swift was a master of this format, and he was writing at a time when the novel itself did not exist.  You can imagine Swift as a blogger or twitter personality of his day, working in a new media but frowned upon by his elders.

  Like many of the 18th century works which preceded the codification of what was and was not a novel, A Tale of a Tub has an anarchic sensibility that is likely to remind modern readers of what we call "post-modern."  In reality, 18th century fiction, like post-modernism, stood outside the tenets of 19th and 20th century "realism."  

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