First published in 1704, Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub satirizes a host of contemporary religious and political issues. The three sections that constitute the Tale—the titular “A Tale of a Tub,” “A Full and True Account of the Battel, Fought Last Friday, Between the Antient and the Modern Books in St. James’s Library,” and “A Discourse Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit”— also take aim at the conventions of modern writing, especially the tendency of writers, editors, and publishers to affix extended prefatory and supplementary materials like dedications, introductions, annotations, and so on to main bodies of text. Robert Hauptman notes that Swift “ludicrously multiplies” (49) supplementary sections and notes throughout the Tale. Swift begins the first section of his 1710 edition with a mock list of other treatises by the author of the Tale (who is figured as an anonymous recluse), an apology (with postscript), two dedicatory epistles, a note from the fictional bookseller/editor/publisher (i.e. Swift) to the reader, and a preface. The second and third sections are introduced by two notes from the bookseller to the reader, another preface, and a dedicatory epistle (with a different addressee than either of the first two epistles). All three sections and their attendant prefatory remarks are annotated both in the margins and in footnotes. The result is a dizzying array of voices, motives, and intentions that is rather more disorienting than edifying. The 1710 edition is also illustrated by a series of engravings but these, again, are of questionable assistance to the reader. One engraving, for example, represents the author’s description of the lunacy of students and professors and the bedlam they create and inhabit (fig. 1).
|Fig 1: Bedlam
Fittingly, critic Marcus Walsh maintains that Swift’s paratexts are “elements in the theatre of obfuscation with which Swift surrounded the Tale” (xxxii). That is, the mass of paratextual information that Swift, the parodist, provides is less supplementary and clarifying than digressive and confusing. By demonstrating the disruptive effect of the paratext gone mad, Swift satirizes the work of writers, editors, and publishers whose ham-fisted adoption of paratextual conventions confounds and exhausts readerly interest. In this sense, the obfuscatory nature of Swift’s paratexts is an extension and amplification of his satire.
Two important examples of obfuscatory paratexts in Swift’s Tale are the list of other treatises by the author at the beginning and the annotations throughout. The list, titled “Treatises wrote by the same Author, most of them mentioned in the following Discourses; which will be speedily published,” falls between the title page and the author’s initial apology for the work (as an aside, Swift’s hilariously over-the-top use of litotes in the apology mercilessly parodies the conventional humility of prefatory rhetoric). The list (fig. 2) is thus placed as one might expect, but the treatises which it describes surely defy readerly expectations.
|Fig. 2: List of treatises
In general, lists of this sort serve to indicate the themes and trajectories of an author’s oeuvre. These lists allow readers, at a glance, to identify patterns of authorial interest. Because they are by their very nature referential and bibliographic, such lists can be useful tools for readers who are looking for more to read by the same author. That is, these lists can effectively market and recommend an author’s work to a reader. Swift’s list, by contrast, is baffling. Although the author refers to most of the listed treatises in the main body of the Tale, the list’s place at the very beginning of the book confronts the reader at the outset with a frustrating set of riddles: what could the relationship possibly be between “A Panegyrical Essay upon the Number THREE” and “A general History of Ears,” and how will any of these absurdly-titled treatises be referenced in the Tale? Who is the author of these works, who seems, judged from this list alone, irredeemably eccentric? Swift’s list forces the reader to pause and ask “what am I getting myself into?” This is hardly a desired aim of what might, in most uses, be characterised as an unobtrusive bit of paratext.
Nevertheless, as Walsh points out in his annotations to the Cambridge Press edition, each of the listed treatises does make sense according to themes developed in the Tale or in other satires Swift planned to write. For example, “An Analytical Dicourse upon Zeal, Histori-theo-physi-logically considered” mocks the use of pseudo-scientific terms such as physico-theological and physico-mechanical by writers like William Wotton and Samuel Parker, whom Swift criticizes throughout the Tale as pedants and philosophically-suspect (Swift, 317–8). “A Voyage into England, by a Person of Quality in Terra Australis incognita, translated from the original” mirrors an idea that Swift intended to write a book about (see Swift, 318). So while the list at first seems to deviate entirely from the norm, the titles do in fact correspond, as a set of inside jokes, with the satiric thrusts of the Tale. As a parody of other such lists, this one is outwardly obfuscatory, but it does, on further analysis, contain information consistent with the insights into authorial interests, trajectories, and so forth that can be gleaned from more apparently conventional lists of this sort.
Swift’s annotations also play with expected conventions of usage. His marginal notes, for the most part, perform the very conventional task of referencing paraphrased and quoted authors. Likewise, many of his footnotes elucidate the text by a process of adduction; they identify and bring to bear explanatory and illustrative passages, allusions, sources, analogues, and contexts (see Walsh, lxxix). However, the annotations are frequently parodic as well. Swift uses them to heighten and continue his jokes. Even though Swift wrote all of the notes himself, in his prefatory apology, Swift notes that “The Author is informed, that the Bookseller has prevailed on several Gentlemen, to write some explanatory Notes, for the goodness of which he is not to answer, having never seen any of them, nor intends it, till they appear in Print, when it is not unlikely that he may have the Pleasure to find twenty Meanings, which never enter’d into his Imagination” (14). In one example (fig. 3) the author writes, in the body of the text, that he affixed multiple titles to his work out of deference to literary custom. In a marginal note, the bookseller writes that the title page of the author’s original manuscript was torn, and that many of the book’s titles were lost. Using the personae of the author and the bookseller, and balancing the author’s purple prose with the bookseller’s pragmatism, Swift points out the extraneous, superficial, and ultimately dispensable nature of extended titles. The point would simply not be as effectively or humorously made without the author’s enthusiastic participation in the conceit and the bookseller’s sober notational reminder of material realities.
|Fig. 3: A note by the bookseller
Some notes are presented as having been written by the critic William Wotton, a target of Swift’s. These notes are invariably pedantic and rambling, and they tend to miss the subtleties and nuance of Swift’s prose. Other notes are absurd. These satirize the tendency of authors to attach notes of questionable value to their documents. At one point, for example, Swift notes that “The Egyptians worshipped a monkey, which animal is very fond of eating lice, styled here as creatures that feed on human gore.” Edifying stuff, indeed. At another point, Swift writes that “I was told by an eminent divine, whom I consulted on this point, that two barbarous words [“Bythus and Sigé”], with that of Acamoth and its qualities, as here set down, are quoted from Irenaeus” (see Hauptman, 49). In this last case, Swift’s target is authors who do not reveal their sources of information but instead reference mysterious, unnamed “eminent divines.” In short, while Swift’s annotations do seem to perform many of the tasks we associate with annotations, very few of them are untouched by his desire to parody and satirize literary conventions.
Without getting into Swift’s apology, his dedicatory epistles, his prefatory notes by the fictional bookseller, and his other attendant prefaces and paratexts, it will be enough to say that readers of A Tale of a Tub, particularly readers accustomed to very dependable, reliable paratexts—paratexts that fade into the background of one’s experience with a text—would be well-advised to leave such expectations at the door, or the front cover, as it were.
Hauptman, Robert. Documentation. Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 2008.
Swift, Jonathan. A Tale of a Tub. In A Tale of a Tub and Other Works, edited by Marcus Walsh, 1–136. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.