In Tale of a Tub, Swift, who presents the Anglican Church as exemplifying the proper mean between the extremes of Roman Catholicism and Calvinistic Puritanism, mocks both their approaches to Holy Scripture, to their Father's Testament. Whereas Peter (the Catholic church) twisted the meaning of the Bible by means of elaborate methods of scriptural interpretation and thereby created bizarre accretions to their inheritance, Jack — or John Calvin and his followers — throw the baby out with the bath water, casting away all oral tradition and written commentary. Instead, they become obsessed with supposedly hidden meanings of scripture to the point of egotistical madness:

Jack had provided a fair copy of his father's will, engrossed in form upon a large skin of parchment, and resolving to act the part of a most dutiful son, he became the fondest creature of it imaginable. For although, as I have often told the reader, it consisted wholly in certain plain, easy directions about the management and wearing of their coats, with legacies and penalties in case of obedience or neglect, yet he began to entertain a fancy that the matter was deeper and darker, and therefore must needs have a great deal more of mystery at the bottom. "Gentlemen," said he, "I will prove this very skin of parchment to be meat, drink, and cloth, to be the philosopher's stone and the universal medicine." In consequence of which raptures he resolved to make use of it in the most necessary as well as the most paltry occasions of life. He had a way of working it into any shape he pleased, so that it served him for a nightcap when he went to bed, and for an umbrella in rainy weather. He would lap a piece of it about a sore toe; or, when he had fits, burn two inches under his nose; or, if anything lay heavy on his stomach, scrape off and swallow as much of the powder as would lie on a silver penny — they were all infallible remedies.

Swift pokes fun at the way Puritans salted their conversation with scriptural citation and allusion, for Jack's "common talk and conversation ran wholly in the praise of his Will, and he circumscribed the utmost of his eloquence within that compass, not daring to let slip a syllable without authority from thence." Jack carries his biblical obsession to such a point that while thinking he's especially devout because he applies the Bible to all areas of life, in fact he ends up sullying and blaspheming the word of God. Typically, Swift presses his point home with scatalogical or toilet humor, telling us that

Once at a strange house he was suddenly taken short upon an urgent juncture, whereon it may not be allowed too particularly to dilate, and being not able to call to mind, with that suddenness the occasion required, an authentic phrase for demanding the way to the back, he chose rather, as the more prudent course, to incur the penalty in such cases usually annexed; neither was it possible for the united rhetoric of mankind to prevail with him to make himself clean again, because, having consulted the will upon this emergency, he met with a passage near the bottom (whether foisted in by the transcriber is not known) which seemed to forbid it.

For Swift, egotism and obsession always end up finding thmselves forced to confront filth whether they appear in lust or religion.


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

Last modified 17 May 2006