Though it was written as early as 1696, is regarded by many as Swift's best work. It certainly reveals his power at its highest. It is a religious allegory, perhaps suggested by the work of Bunyan, on three men: Peter, who stands for the Roman Catholic Church; Jack, who represents the Dissenters; and Martin, the personification of the Anglican and Lutheran Churches. Each of the three has a coat left to him by his father, and they have many experiences, beginning with the changes that they make on the coats that have been left to them. The book was intended as an attack on the 'enthusiasm'' of Roman Catholics and Dissenters alike, and culminates in a fierce attack upon Jack. But, though Martin escapes comparatively lightly, Swift's contempt is poured on so many of the fundamental principles of religion that the book led many to suspect his own Christianity. Indeed, the scope of the work widens until it becomes a merciless dissection of human nature in general, and of intellectual pride and religious hypocrisy in particular. Within the narrative are digressions on such subjects as critics and the value of madness to the community, which reveal the deep irony of Swift's satire at its best.
A Tale of a Tub is full of wit, and brilliant in its imaginative power and the incisiveness of its thought. The style is terse, and has a sustained vigour, pace, and colourfulness which Swift did not equal in his later works. Many years after the writing of the book he was heard to mutter, while looking at a copy, "Good God! what a genius I had when I wrote that book!"
The following extract shows the suggestiveness of his allegory, the corrosive power of his satire, and his redoubtable style:
Whenever it happened that any rogue of Newgate was condemned to be hanged, Peter would offer him a pardon for a certain sum of money; which when the poor caitiff had made all shifts to scrape up, and send, his lordship would return a piece of paper in this form:"To all mayors, sheriffs, jailors, constables, bailiffs, hangmen, etc. Whereas we are informed that A. B, remains in the hands of you, or any of you, under the sentence of death. We will and command you, upon sight hereof to let the said prisoner depart to his own habitation whether he stands condemned for murder, etc., etc., for which this shall be your sufficient warrant; and if you fail hereof, God damn you and yours to all eternity; and so we bid you heartily farewell. Your most humble man's man, Emperor Peter."
The wretches, trusting to this, lost their lives and money too. It will be no difficult part to persuade the reader that so many worthy discoveries met with great success in the world; though I may justly assure him that I have related much the smallest number, my design having been only to single out such as will be of most benefit for public imitation, or which best served to give some idea of the reach and wit of the inventor. And therefore it need not be wondered at if, by this time, Lord Peter was become exceeding rich. But, alas! he had kept his brain so long and so violently upon the rack, that at last it shook itself, and began to turn round for a little ease. In short, what with pride, projects, and knavery, poor Peter was grown distracted, and conceived the strangest imaginations in the world. In the height of his fits (as it is usual with those who run mad out of pride) he would call himself God Almighty, and sometimes monarch of the universe. I have seen him (says my author) take three old high-crowned hats and clap them on his head three-storey high, with a huge bunch of keys at his girdle, and an angling-rod in his hand. In which guise, whoever went to take him by the hand in the way of salutation, Peter, with much grace, like a well-educated spaniel, would present them all with his foot, and if they refused his civility, then would he raise it as high as their chops, and give them a damned kick on the mouth, which has ever since been called a salute. —A Tale of a Tub