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A Tale of a Tub

Jonathan Swift

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Categories » All ebooks » Fiction » Comedy and Satire

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A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift was first published in 1704. This was Swift's first major work, telling the story of three brothers - Peter, Martin, and Jack. The whole story is an allegory with each brother representing a branch of Christianity. Peter is the Roman Catholic, Jack is the Protestant, and Martin is the Church of England. A Tale of a Tub is essentially a biting satirical take on the morals and ethics of the English and their religions, but while a lot of satire offers an opposing position as a solution to the one being parodied - Swift does no such thing. As controversial as it was, it was very popular at a time when religion and politics were very much intertwined. One of the major things that Swift attacks in the book is the folly of misreading - of taking things too literally and not being able to recognise nonsense - something he gives the reader ample opportunity to do with the many digressions in the book.

№ 74 in Anne Haight's List of Banned Books.

This book has 80 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1704. This edition was first published in 1889.

Production notes: This ebook of A Tale of a Tub was published by Global Grey on the 27th July 2021. The artwork used for the cover is 'A Dispute Among the Doctors' by Pietro della Vecchia.

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Categories » All ebooks » Fiction » Comedy and Satire

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Excerpt from 'A Tale of a Tub'

To this end the philosopher’s way in all ages has been by erecting certain edifices in the air; but whatever practice and reputation these kind of structures have formerly possessed, or may still continue in, not excepting even that of Socrates when he was suspended in a basket to help contemplation, I think, with due submission, they seem to labour under two inconveniences.  First, that the foundations being laid too high, they have been often out of sight and ever out of hearing.  Secondly, that the materials being very transitory, have suffered much from inclemencies of air, especially in these north-west regions.

Therefore, towards the just performance of this great work there remain but three methods that I can think on; whereof the wisdom of our ancestors being highly sensible, has, to encourage all aspiring adventures, thought fit to erect three wooden machines for the use of those orators who desire to talk much without interruption.  These are the Pulpit, the Ladder, and the Stage-itinerant.  For as to the Bar, though it be compounded of the same matter and designed for the same use, it cannot, however, be well allowed the honour of a fourth, by reason of its level or inferior situation exposing it to perpetual interruption from collaterals.  Neither can the Bench itself, though raised to a proper eminency, put in a better claim, whatever its advocates insist on.  For if they please to look into the original design of its erection, and the circumstances or adjuncts subservient to that design, they will soon acknowledge the present practice exactly correspondent to the primitive institution, and both to answer the etymology of the name, which in the Phoenician tongue is a word of great signification, importing, if literally interpreted, “The place of sleep,” but in common acceptation, “A seat well bolstered and cushioned, for the repose of old and gouty limbs;” senes ut in otia tuta recedant.  Fortune being indebted to them this part of retaliation, that as formerly they have long talked whilst others slept, so now they may sleep as long whilst others talk.

But if no other argument could occur to exclude the Bench and the Bar from the list of oratorical machines, it were sufficient that the admission of them would overthrow a number which I was resolved to establish, whatever argument it might cost me; in imitation of that prudent method observed by many other philosophers and great clerks, whose chief art in division has been to grow fond of some proper mystical number, which their imaginations have rendered sacred to a degree that they force common reason to find room for it in every part of Nature, reducing, including, and adjusting, every genus and species within that compass by coupling some against their wills and banishing others at any rate.  Now, among all the rest, the profound number THREE is that which has most employed my sublimest speculations, nor ever without wonderful delight.  There is now in the press, and will be published next term, a panegyrical essay of mine upon this number, wherein I have, by most convincing proofs, not only reduced the senses and the elements under its banner, but brought over several deserters from its two great rivals, SEVEN and NINE.

Now, the first of these oratorical machines, in place as well as dignity, is the Pulpit.  Of pulpits there are in this island several sorts, but I esteem only that made of timber from the Sylva Caledonia, which agrees very well with our climate.  If it be upon its decay, it is the better, both for conveyance of sound and for other reasons to be mentioned by and by.  The degree of perfection in shape and size I take to consist in being extremely narrow, with little ornament, and, best of all, without a cover; for, by ancient rule, it ought to be the only uncovered vessel in every assembly where it is rightfully used, by which means, from its near resemblance to a pillory, it will ever have a mighty influence on human ears.

Of Ladders I need say nothing.  It is observed by foreigners themselves, to the honour of our country, that we excel all nations in our practice and understanding of this machine.  The ascending orators do not only oblige their audience in the agreeable delivery, but the whole world in their early publication of their speeches, which I look upon as the choicest treasury of our British eloquence, and whereof I am informed that worthy citizen and bookseller, Mr. John Dunton, has made a faithful and a painful collection, which he shortly designs to publish in twelve volumes in folio, illustrated with copper-plates,—a work highly useful and curious, and altogether worthy of such a hand.

The last engine of orators is the Stage-itinerant, erected with much sagacity, sub Jove pluvioin triviis et quadriviis.  It is the great seminary of the two former, and its orators are sometimes preferred to the one and sometimes to the other, in proportion to their deservings, there being a strict and perpetual intercourse between all three.

From this accurate deduction it is manifest that for obtaining attention in public there is of necessity required a superior position of place.  But although this point be generally granted, yet the cause is little agreed in; and it seems to me that very few philosophers have fallen into a true natural solution of this phenomenon.  The deepest account, and the most fairly digested of any I have yet met with is this, that air being a heavy body, and therefore, according to the system of Epicurus, continually descending, must needs be more so when laden and pressed down by words, which are also bodies of much weight and gravity, as is manifest from those deep impressions they make and leave upon us, and therefore must be delivered from a due altitude, or else they will neither carry a good aim nor fall down with a sufficient force.

“Corpoream quoque enim vocem constare fatendum est,
Et sonitum, quoniam possunt impellere sensus.”

Lucr. lib. 4.

And I am the readier to favour this conjecture from a common observation, that in the several assemblies of these orators Nature itself has instructed the hearers to stand with their mouths open and erected parallel to the horizon, so as they may be intersected by a perpendicular line from the zenith to the centre of the earth.  In which position, if the audience be well compact, every one carries home a share, and little or nothing is lost.

I confess there is something yet more refined in the contrivance and structure of our modern theatres.  For, first, the pit is sunk below the stage with due regard to the institution above deduced, that whatever weighty matter shall be delivered thence, whether it be lead or gold, may fall plump into the jaws of certain critics, as I think they are called, which stand ready open to devour them.  Then the boxes are built round and raised to a level with the scene, in deference to the ladies, because that large portion of wit laid out in raising pruriences and protuberances is observed to run much upon a line, and ever in a circle.  The whining passions and little starved conceits are gently wafted up by their own extreme levity to the middle region, and there fix and are frozen by the frigid understandings of the inhabitants.  Bombast and buffoonery, by nature lofty and light, soar highest of all, and would be lost in the roof if the prudent architect had not, with much foresight, contrived for them a fourth place, called the twelve-penny gallery, and there planted a suitable colony, who greedily intercept them in their passage.

Now this physico-logical scheme of oratorical receptacles or machines contains a great mystery, being a type, a sign, an emblem, a shadow, a symbol, bearing analogy to the spacious commonwealth of writers and to those methods by which they must exalt themselves to a certain eminency above the inferior world.  By the Pulpit are adumbrated the writings of our modern saints in Great Britain, as they have spiritualised and refined them from the dross and grossness of sense and human reason.  The matter, as we have said, is of rotten wood, and that upon two considerations: because it is the quality of rotten wood to light in the dark; and secondly, because its cavities are full of worms—which is a type with a pair of handles, having a respect to the two principal qualifications of the orator and the two different fates attending upon his works.

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