Title of A Tale of A Tub by Jonathan Swift

What does the title of A Tale of a Tub mean?



Jonathan Swift is swift in his satires and is probably at his swiftest in A Tale of a Tub. This note provides a brief explanation of the title of A Tale of a Tub and demonstrates that in keeping with the form of the work, the title itself embodies the twin features of serious import and playful satire which is often found in Swift’s writings.


Swift explains the meaning of the title of “A Tale of a Tub” in the Preface in which he describes a peculiar tradition whereby sailors, on coming in contact with whales in the sea used to throw a tub in order to distract the whales and protect the ship from a possible collision. Swift says that the “whale” stands for Thomas Hobbes’ famous atheistic political treatise “Leviathan” ( named after a humongous sea beast) , the ship stands for the Commonwealth and the Church and what he’s writing is the “tub” aimed at distracting the Leviathan from wrecking the ship.

All of this seems to explain away the title. Except, it does not. Swift’s explanation hides two important features : the serious import of it and the satire lodged in the title itself.


First, the earliest reference to the whale-tub idea comes from a German text  titled “The Ship of Fools” (1494) by the German writer Sebastian Brant, as explained by Michael Quinion.

Interestingly, The Ship of Fools, was an allegorial satire on religion and politics , quite like Swift’s Tale. Moreover, it was based on Plato’s famous allegory found in Book IV of Plato’s Republic which describes how the ship of the state is vulnerable to the whims of dissenting crew members who, under the pretext of the captain’s weaknesses fight over the possession of the ship . The argument in A Tale of A Tub is also essentially about this very concern which Swift highlights in the Preface and during the of course of the Tale. Though he concedes that defects exist in the ship (the Commonwealth  and the Church), he claims that the solution lies not in challenging the nature of ship itself but in exposing and remedying the defects which is precisely what he does with various branches of Christianity through the allegory of the three brothers in A Tale of a Tub .
Hobbes, in book III of the Leviathan had placed religion under the Sovereign and even hinted at the political legitimacy of the Sovereign independent of Christianity. This radical position represented a real threat that the Leviathan posed to the ship.

Swift , an ardent supporter of the Anglican Church therefore shows how brother Martin (The Anglican Church) is the legitimate heir of Christianity by virtue of remaining faithful to his Father’s instructions . Thus, the title of A Tale of a Tub is a part of and responds to a long history rooted in the allegorical-satire tradition.

The second aspect pertains to the satire in the title which gives it the status of a fabricated tale. Historically, A Tale of a Tub was also the title of a 1640 play by Ben Jonson which received its name from the false tales of a certain ‘Squire Tub’ about his romantic rivals who competed in wooing the lady he loved . Mr Tub in turn becomes a victim of similar fabrication ( in Johnson’s play) by another character. Colloquially, “A tale of a tub” thus stood for a ruse and a fabrication in the Restoration Period and considering Swift’s penchant for irony, one cannot help but feel that the title of the Tale of a Tub is perhaps a “tale of a tub” presented to his audience in a typical Swiftian fashion.





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