Swift's Satire on Calvin in Tale of a Tub

George P. Landow, Professor of English and the History of Art

Elaborating upon his satiric analogy — essentially what John Ruskin a century later would term a Symbolical Grotesque — Swift has English Protestantism in the person of Martin wisely chose a moderate middle way between Roman Catholicism and Calvinism. Swift therefore describes Martin stripping away unnecessary Roman Catholic additions to their father's testament while taking care not to harm the basic fabric itself:

Resolving therefore to rid his coat of a huge quantity of gold lace, he picked up the stitches with much caution and diligently gleaned out all the loose threads as he went, which proved to be a work of time. Then he fell about the embroidered Indian figures of men, women, and children, against which, as you have heard in its due place, their father's testament was extremely exact and severe. These, with much dexterity and application, were after a while quite eradicated or utterly defaced. For the rest, where he observed the embroidery to be worked so close as not to be got away without damaging the cloth, or where it served to hide or strengthened any flaw in the body of the coat, contracted by the perpetual tampering of workmen upon it, he concluded the wisest course was to let it remain, resolving in no case whatsoever that the substance of the stuff should suffer injury, which he thought the best method for serving the true intent and meaning of his father's will.

In contrast to the Martin's cautious approach to reform, Jack (or John Calvin) "entered upon the matter with other thoughts and a quite different spirit" because he paid more attention to what his brother Peter had done wrong than to his father's instructions, "for the memory of Lord Peter's injuries produced a degree of hatred and spite which had a much greater share of inciting him than any regards after his father's commands." He then egotistically embraces his anger at Peter, "honouring it with the title of zeal," an essentially destructive emotion. In fact, Jack

allowed it at this time its full swing. Thus it happened that, stripping down a parcel of gold lace a little too hastily, he rent the main body of his coat from top to bottom; and whereas his talent was not of the happiest in taking up a stitch, he knew no better way than to darn it again with packthread thread and a skewer. But the matter was yet infinitely worse (I record it with tears) when he proceeded to the embroidery; for being clumsy of nature, and of temper impatient withal, beholding millions of stitches that required the nicest hand and sedatest constitution to extricate, in a great rage he tore off the whole piece, cloth and all, and flung it into the kennel, and furiously thus continuing his career, "Ah! good brother Martin," said he, "do as I do, for the love of God; strip, tear, pull, rend, flay off all that we may appear as unlike that rogue Peter as it is possible. I would not for a hundred pounds carry the least mark about me that might give occasion to the neighbours of suspecting I was related to such a rascal."

Martin, however, responds by begging his brother "not to damage his coat by any means, for he never would get such another; desired him to consider that it was not their business to form their actions by any reflection upon Peter's, but by observing the rules prescribed in their father's will. That he should remember Peter was still their brother, whatever faults or injuries he had committed." Conceited, self-indulgent, coarse, and clumsy, Jack will not listen and creates a kind of Christianity that becomes an image of himself — the Calvinism that produced what Swift, the Anglican cleric, took to be the horrors of the Puritan revolution of 1640 and the resultant Interregnum.


Swift, Jonathan. Tale of a Tub (1704) Text at the University of Adelaide, Australia.

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Last modified 17 May 2006