A Tale of a Tub sounds simple, but isn’t. Swift explained that it derived from a nautical tradition in which sailors, when menaced by a whale, would throw a tub overboard for it to play with; symbolically, the whale was Hobbes’s atheistical tract Leviathan, and the tub Swift’s own book, intended to distract it from scuttling the ship of state.
But this can only be a partial explanation. The phrase ‘a tale of a tub’ was slang for ‘a cock-and-bull story’, and had been the title of a 1596 comedy by Ben Jonson, as well as featuring in works such as Webster’s The White Devil. A ‘tub’, too, was slang for a pulpit, and Swift was a clergyman.
Perhaps another important influence was Rabelais: Swift greatly admired Rabelais and modelled his prose style partly on him, and the phrase ‘a tale of a tub’ appears several times in the Urquhart translation of Gargantua and Pantagruel.
Jonathan Swift, Angus Ross, and David Woolley: A Tale of a Tub and Other Works (Oxford World's Classics, 2008)
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