Jonathan Swift's Satire of Hypocrisy in A Tale of a Tub
Emily DeBaunIn A Tale of a Tub, Jonathan Swift confronts hypocritical Christians for their abuses of religion while affirming the purity of the Gospel itself. Swift wrote this satire to address growing disillusionment with Christianity, which he saw as stemming from doctrinal corruption and hypocritical behavior within all major branches of the church. By exposing its faults, he intended to hold the church accountable for presenting an authentic, biblical account of the Christian faith.
Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin in 1667. As a young adult, he moved to England, worked as a secretary to a former diplomat, and began to write. His early work primarily criticized the state of English prose and examined the relationships between different cultures,1 but he soon realized that these intellectual exercises were not enough to satisfy the calling of his faith. Swift “took up orders” in 1694 when he was ordained in the Anglican Church.2 He left his job as a secretary and went to minister in Ireland.3 At the time, Europe was still feeling the effects of the Protestant Reformation, during which religious dissenters who were frustrated with certain practices in the Catholic Church formed new churches based on differing ideas about the authority of scripture. Meanwhile, Britain was dealing with its own English Reformation, a time when its official Anglican Church was developed by a combination of elements from both Catholicism and Protestantism.4 There was a great deal of argument over what constituted “true” Christianity and what was the best way to go about following Christ.
Though the Reformation occurred primarily during the sixteenth century, the conflict between Catholics and different groups of Protestant Dissenters was still very much alive when Swift was ordained.5 The tension between authoritative, politicized religious organizations and the common public, who were inclined to reject their faith because of their religious leaders’ “dullness and pedantry,”6 was one of the many problems that the English church faced at this time. The church failed to present the foundational message of the Gospel to the middle class; instead, the general population saw the church as a place of power-struggles and politics. As someone in a unique position to bridge the worlds of the “contemporary reading public” and the church, Jonathan Swift addressed these issues by writing an exceedingly controversial work titled A Tale of a Tub, published in 1704.7 In this piece, Swift gives an allegorical account of the Protestant Reformation. Swift does not take sides in the religious conflict, but criticizes each of the factions, exposing how each one abuses religion.8 His strongest condemnation is for Christian leaders who value self-promotion over the core principles of faith, an example which had led many to see Christianity as irrelevant and uninspired.
A Tale of a Tub tells of three sons named Peter, Jack, and Martin whose father has recently died. Their sole inheritances are simple but well-made coats, which their father has asked that they enjoy and carefully preserve for all of their days. Their father’s will is filled with instructions on how to care for the coats and rules about what his sons may or may not do with their coats. The brothers carefully maintain their coats for seven years until they fall in love with three royal women named Money, Pride, and Ambition. They then begin to resent the plainness of their coats, certain that more ornate, stylish apparel will help them gain the ladies’ favor. They are aware that the will strictly forbids any addition to the coats, but they so badly want to conform to the styles of the period that they twist and reinterpret the words of the will in such a ridiculous way as to allow exactly the practices that their father had warned them against. This first violation sets the stage for the brothers to consistently disregard their father’s will whenever it contradicts their own desires.9
This beginning to Swift’s Tale sets up a very thin allegory for the history of the Christian church. The father represents Christ, the will is the Bible, the coats are Christian faith, and each son represents one major branch of the Christian church following the Reformation. Peter represents the apostle Peter, and therefore the Catholic Church; Jack is named for John Calvin and represents Puritanism; and Martin represents Martin Luther and the Anglican Church, as Swift considered Luther the “Father of the English Reformation.”10
What is notable about the beginning of A Tale of a Tub is the way in which all three men fall into error together. There is not one particular brother who deviates from the father’s will first. In fact, the brothers are not even called by individual names during this first chapter of the satire. All three of the brothers are seduced by society to a point where, “Resolved, therefore, at all hazards to comply with the modes of the world, they concerted matters together, and agreed unanimously to lock up their father’s will in a strong-box…and trouble themselves no father to examine it.”11 Swift argues here that the initial deviation from the teachings of the Bible was a unanimous and simultaneous act by all three parties. The brothers’ human passions, represented by their lust for the ladies Money, Pride, and Ambition, as well as their desire to fit in with societal standards of dress, win out over their desire to follow their father’s will. The problem is not with the will itself, or with the wisdom of their deceased father’s instructions, but rather with the brothers and the way in which they abuse their coats. In other words, the perceived problems of religion are the result of humans prioritizing worldly things over the will of God, while still claiming authority in the church. Since human depravity is at fault, there is no reason to believe that the will is an inadequate basis for faith. In the opening chapter of his satire, Swift’s message to readers is that the “self-interested stage-priests” who were the public face of the early eighteenth-century religious scene in England were not representative of the true message of Christianity.12
As the Tale continues, Peter assumes power over the kingdom, pushing his brothers out of public view. He earns the respect of his constituents but quickly begins to abuse his power by deceiving his people. This deception is most blatant when Peter feeds his subjects bread crusts, all the while insisting that they are actually sumptuous cuts of meat. When two of his subjects protest this absurd disparity, he exclaims, “…it is true, good, natural mutton as any in Leadenhall Market; and God confound you both eternally if you offer to believe otherwise!”13 Peter wants to maintain control over his people without carrying out his real duties. When his subjects protest that they have not received what was promised, Peter’s absolute power is brought into question, and he resorts to threats of divine judgment.
This portion of the tale is Swift’s allegory of what he sees as corruption in the contemporary Catholic Church. Peter’s rise to power over the kingdom is meant to suggest that the Catholic Church had become allied with state power.14 Swift also intends for us to link Peter’s threats to his insubordinate subjects with the violent suppression of heresy during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, exemplified by the Spanish Inquisition and the reign of Bloody Queen Mary of England. Swift believes that by refusing to tolerate any dissenting views, Peter, and the eighteenth-century Catholic Church by analogy, pretends to excessive authority.
Peter’s desire to keep power for himself fosters his belief that he is capable of taking over responsibilities that belong to God. As a result, his subjects are misinformed and mistreated. The Bible, represented by the father’s will, is ignored. Though his father’s original message to Peter has not changed—just as Christ’s initial instructions to the church remain the same—people’s pride and inadequacies lead them to corrupt or ignore the instructions they have been given. Swift thought it was important to convey to the English public that the mistreatment of the people by the church is by no means part of pure faith or a true following of the scriptures.
A little later in the Tale, Jack also begins to depart further from the desires of his father. When he and Martin discover that Peter is acting self-interestedly, they decide to seek their father’s wisdom, so they find his will and begin to read it again. As they read, they realize how much the gaudiness of their coats has deviated from their original instructions on how to care for them. They commit to removing the decorations and living in alignment with their father’s will. Martin gently removes each ornament from his coat. Jack, however, exclaims, “Ah! My good brother Martin… 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 possible.”15 He furiously tears off the ornaments so that the coat is torn to shreds in the process. In his attempt to follow his father by disassociating himself from his wayward brother, Jack destroys what his father has left to him.16
In Swift’s story, Jack’s fall from obedience mirrors the development of Puritanism in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. In an effort to show his dissatisfaction with the practices of the Catholic and Anglican Churches, Jack attempts to pursue an ascetic way of life in opposition to his brothers’ excesses. His zeal for reform and obedience drives him toward legalism, where his dogged commitment to following the instructions in his father’s will turns his focus to following rules rather than following God.17 In the process, he neglects Christ’s commandments to love his brother and to correct him gently, rather than with furious passion. Like Peter, Jack allows his excessive zeal to take precedence over the real message of the will. The problems that result from his behavior are of his own creation and a result of his human failures; they do not come from any fault or failing of the will. At the time A Tale of a Tub was published, there were still many Christians in England who chose to adhere to a Puritanical lifestyle. By using Jack to show the legalism and lack of charity that often result from such a lifestyle, Swift wanted to counteract the alienation that the common people felt toward these zealots who claimed to have a true knowledge of God.
Though Swift presents the third brother, Martin, as the most docile and levelheaded of the three brothers, he does not exempt him from an exposure of his imperfections. When Martin and Jack leave Peter, Martin gains popularity for decrying Peter’s practice of selling his subjects expensive—and ineffective—remedies for various maladies. Martin soon becomes recognized as an advocate for Peter’s subjects; as part of this advocacy, Martin agrees to do what Peter would not: he performs second marriages for Peter’s subjects who want to practice polygamy. Martin gains a large following of people who want to participate in this practice, and many of Peter’s former subjects decide to submit to Martin’s rule instead. As time goes on, Martin accrues considerable power and gains both constituents and land.18 According to Swift, Martin’s flaw is his moral flexibility – his willingness to compromise. He is all too ready to bend the standards of morality that call for monogamy in order to satisfy his potential followers.
Martin’s objection to Peter’s sale of remedies parallels Martin Luther’s sixteenth-century campaign against the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences,19 which was a major factor in the start of the Protestant Reformation. Similarly, Swift uses Martin’s willingness to perform polygamous marriages to represent the birth of the Anglican Church in 1534 because its split from the Catholic Church was prompted in large part by King Henry VIII’s demand for a divorce that would allow him to marry another woman.20 The newly-formed Anglican Church granted him the divorce that the Catholic Church had refused to give him. Swift saw this willingness to compromise the standards of the church in the face of political pressures as a deviation from scripture’s instructions to “stand firm”21 in the faith and to “not be conformed to this world.”22 Martin’s desire to avoid conflict and his fear of worldly institutions, along with his desire to gain subjects and land of his own, take precedence over the principles that he once upheld. This part of the tale carried the most personal risk for Swift. In attacking the Anglican Church’s political character, he was taking on the flaws of his own institution.
After his satire was published, Swift faced major backlash from a number of powerful figures within the church. He was accused of blasphemy and prevented from ever holding higher stations within the Anglican Church.23 Nevertheless, Swift refused to retreat from his original purpose of exposing the abuses of religion to help his readers gain an understanding of the true meaning of Christian teachings. This is made clear in the “Apology” he published with the fifth edition of A Tale of a Tub, where he declares that, “The abuses of Religion, he proposed to set forth” and states that, “It is manifest by the reception the following discourse hath met with, that those who approve it, are a great majority among the men of taste.”24 In these lines, Swift communicates both the firmness of his mission and his respect for his target audience, the common people among whom A Tale of a Tub was incredibly popular. Though Swift’s career in the Anglican Church never recovered from the damage it received after the publication of his piece, A Tale of a Tub was widely circulated and enjoyed.
Jonathan Swift was clearly a man burdened by the threat that Christian hypocrisy posed to the spread of the true Gospel. Seeing that the general public of England was estranged from church leaders and clergy, Swift risked his personal security to reach the people with the message that human failure does not negate Christ’s message. This concept remains significant today, as Christianity is commonly rejected because of Christians’ natural inability to adequately represent Jesus. Furthermore, the efforts of Swift and others like him helped to eliminate many of the abuses that he addressed in A Tale of a Tub. The churches as Swift knew them have undergone significant change and reform from within as Christians acknowledge their failings and seek to follow the will of God. Ultimately, true Christianity sweeps past the boundaries of human error, honestly acknowledging that man is imperfect and looking instead to the excellence of Christ for deliverance.
1“Swift, Jonathan, 1667-1745,” Literature Online Biography, ed. Clark Lawlor, 2000, Jalic Inc. 25 Nov. 2009