Swift's Satire on Elaborate Biblical Interpretation in Tale of a Tub
George P. Landow, Professor of English and the History of Art
Swift, like many Anglicans, believed that however obscure some passages of the Bible might seem, it stated everything important for a good Christian life with clarity and simplicity. He therefore found the elaborate interpretations of the medieval and later Roman Catholic church absurd and the perfect target for satire. In Tale of a Tub, Peter, finding that the simple truths of scripture make life difficult in the worlds of wealth and fashion, invents ways around his father's instructions. Here he finds a way to embellish the coats, even though his father had told his sons not to do so.
After much thought, one of the brothers, who happened to be more book-learned than the other two, said he had found an expedient. "It is true," said he, "there is nothing here in this will, totidem verbis, making mention of shoulder-knots, but I dare conjecture we may find them inclusive, or totidem syllabis." This distinction was immediately approved by all; and so they fell again to examine the will. But their evil star had so directed the matter that the first syllable was not to be found in the whole writing; upon which disappointment, he who found the former evasion took heart, and said, "Brothers, there is yet hopes; for though we cannot find them totidem verbis nor totidem syllabis, I dare engage we shall make them out tertio modo or totidem literis." This discovery was also highly commended, upon which they fell once more to the scrutiny, and soon picked out S, H, O, U, L, D, E, R, when the same planet, enemy to their repose, had wonderfully contrived that a K was not to be found. Here was a weighty difficulty! But the distinguishing brother (for whom we shall hereafter find a name), now his hand was in, proved by a very good argument that K was a modern illegitimate letter, unknown to the learned ages, nor anywhere to be found in ancient manuscripts. "It is true," said he, "the word Calendae, had in Q. V. C. been sometimes writ with a K, but erroneously, for in the best copies it is ever spelt with a C; and by consequence it was a gross mistake in our language to spell 'knot' with a K," but that from henceforward he would take care it should be writ with a C. Upon this all further difficulty vanished; shoulder-knots were made clearly out to be jure paterno [the father's law], and our three gentlemen swaggered with as large and as flaunting ones as the best. [section II]
Eventually, the two younger brothers realize that such unchecked twisting of their father's testament had rendered almost beyond recognition, but Martin and Jack take different approaches to remedying the situation.
Swift, Jonathan. Tale of a Tub (1704) Text at the University of Adelaide, Australia.
Last modified 17 May 2006