Jonathan Swift Answering The Question Did His

Works Reflect The Time In Which He Lived Essay, Research Paper Introduction Did Jonathan Swift’s literary works reflect the life and times in which he lived? While researching for this paper I have read many criticisms, biographies and articles. In reading those I have come to the conclusion that his works clearly represented his life and times.

Works Reflect The Time In Which He Lived Essay, Research Paper


Did Jonathan Swift’s literary works reflect the life and times in which he lived? While researching for this paper I have read many criticisms, biographies and articles. In reading those I have come to the conclusion that his works clearly represented his life and times. I hope that by the end of this paper you agree.


Jonathan Swift was born only 7 months after his father’s death, on November 30th, 1667. His mother raised Jonathan at the expense of his Uncle Goodwin. It is believed that his Uncle Goodwin wasn’t rich and therefor Jonathan was no stranger to poverty. Despite his uncle’s lack of funds he still had a nurse who took care of him. His nurse grew so attached to him that when she left for England to visit a dying family member; she took Jonathan with her. Jonathan’s mother was afraid that he wouldn’t survive another trip back to Ireland so she left him with his nurse where he remained until he was five.

After his return to Ireland, his Uncle Goodwin took in Jonathan. He was sent to Kilkemy School when he was six and stayed for eight years. He was accepted into the University of Dublin when he was fourteen with his cousin Thomas Swift. While attending the University, Jonathan Swift went against the college’s curriculum and its disciplinary fashions. It was because of his rebellious attitude that Swift got the worst punishment given by the college, he got his degree by special favor.

Shortly after college Jonathan Swift left Ireland. He went to live with his mother but was turned away because she herself was living with friends. She told him to get a job with Sir William Temple who was a retired statesman. He got the job and worked for 20 pounds a year. Swift worked with Temple for several years but their relationship wasn’t very good. Swift eventually left Temple’s and got a job as prebend of Kilroot were he made 100 pounds a year.

He left that job shortly and was gratefully accepted back into the services of Sir William Temple. Jonathan Swift and Temple quickly became good friends and Jonathan went back to work right away. He finished Tale of the Tub and completed The Battle of the Books but both of them weren’t published until 1704 (Read, 1880). Swift got the political experience while working with Temple. He experienced the movement of politics and power. It was also with Temple that Swift tutored Esther Johnson [ whom he has immortalized as Stella (Read, 1880)]. Stella would eventually become one of Swift’s closest friends.

Swift’s literary career didn’t begin until he published The Tale of the Tub and The Battle of the Books. Both of these were published anonymously. After his initial plunge into the world of literature Swift wrote a lot of essays. He also became interested in the Tory party and wrote a lot of essays in support of their ideals. The Tories fall from power in 1714 left many of Swifts friends in jail or exiled. He returned to England and began to write more about Irish problems and causes. It wasn’t until 1726 that Swift made his final voyage to England. He brought with him a manuscript for Gulliver’s Travels. It very quickly became successful.

After the Esther Johnson perished in 1728, Swift’s life began the fall apart around him. Not only did Swift’s health start to fall to pieces; his friends began to die as well. Eventually Meniere’s disease took Jonathan Swift’s sanity, and his life. He died on October 19th, 1745 (Lee, 1998).

History of the Times

English History

In the seventeenth century, England was primarily an agronomic place. There were many farmers, laborers and tenants that made up most of the population. London was the mercantile, economic, administrative, and social core of England. It had a substantial middle-class and was the residence of the Restoration Court. (McDougal, p334)

“The restoration of the monarchy meant the restoration of Parliament and of the established Church of England” (McDougal, p335). Charles, leader of the Anglican Church, wanted to remain tolerable, but the Anglican bishops and the country squires in Parliament took hard maneuvers towards Protestant dissenters and also towards Catholics

whom symbolized the French to them. It was illegal to be in any church besides the Church of England. If you broke this law, you were marked a traitor and were no longer able to hold a public position or go to a university. This sparked the division of Parliament into two groups, the Tories and the Whigs.

James took away his brother Charles’s throne in 1685. James was bent on converting England from Protestantism to Catholicism. It was because of this desire that the Whig leaders planned to replace James for his daughter Mary and her husband, whom both were practicing Protestants. James eventually gave up his throne and went to the French court. Mary and her husband took over the throne in 1688 and thus “the domination of dissipated royalists in government and the era of violent religious confrontations ended” (McDougal, p336).

A lot of England’s people lived in a comfortable life style during the eighteenth century, and some lived exorbitantly. In London, beautiful buildings and churches took the place of the old buildings that burnt down after the Great Fire. Middle class Londoners could relax and discuss whatever they pleased in any of the many coffeehouses that were present at the time (McDougal, p335-336).

Irish History

It would be extremely hard to believe a more unfortunate and embarrassing circumstance than of Ireland at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The Battle of the Boyne and all the instances that accompanied it had utterly exhausted the Irish Roman Catholics. Almost every man of action or that had ability amongst them had left in search of other countries, meanwhile, laws of utmost seriousness destroyed the Catholics that stayed. Protestants however, were considered a part of an English colony; any sign of sovereignty that became present amongst them was diligently restricted. Almost one third of the country’s profit was exhausted by England, and a severe shortage took hold.

A lot of this poverty is credited to a mercantile legislation that purposely destroyed the main contributors of Irelands resources. The land was mainly meadow so it was used to raise cattle; it was perfect for this because the cattle had an abundance of land and grass to graze on. The Cattle was brought to England in mass quantities and it eventually was the greatest source of Irelands assets. English landowners took the offensive and wined that the Irish were taking away a lot of the English’s profits. They brought forth a law stating that the Irish could no longer import cattle into England.

The inability of Ireland to import cattle made the Irish turn to other industries. Due to their large cattle grazing land, they converted instead to sheep walks, and hurriedly produced wool. The taxes and the cost for living was less in Ireland than in England so more and more English enterprises came over to settle it. Once again, the English complained, and the exportation of wool to England, as well as any other country, was no longer allowed.

This was too much for Ireland to bare. Their main source of wealth was completely obliterated . The next chain of events led to its state of famine and depression. Most of the skilled workers left the country for better opportunities elsewhere leaving Ireland almost unpopulated. A lot of Irish people left for America in hopes of better opportunity, thus sending the country into a famine that remained there for quite some time. An author wrote in 1729:

“I am sorry to find so universal a despondency amongst us in respect to trade. Men of all degrees give up the thought of improving our commerce, and conclude that the restrictions under which we are laid are so insurmountable that any attempt on that head would be vain and fruitless.” (Hartpole, 1861)

Swift’s Influences

The confused and transitional-age in which Swift lived in disposed him to see the conditions of human life as chaotic and difficult. Though he desired and sought nothing more than order and unity, he saw little hope of attaining it in man’s world of deceit (Bloom, p13). The complexity of Swift’s personality was largely influenced by his classical-Christian upbringing and held these values as his ideal self.

According to (Golden, p33), Swift’s vision of the world was built upon blown-up fragments of himself. In many of his writings, Swift observed himself as an acting figure, an example of man caught in certain situations. Knowing that in each partial role he played, the whole man would be diminished. Swift saw himself as an Irishman, priest, teacher, politician, friend, poet, and dignitary (Golden, p34).

Swift’s view of himself when it came to his ambition was conflicting. At times he felt that this was pride, (influenced by his Christian upbringing), and yet other times legitimized his ambition as merely using his God given talents. Such undermining led to fantasies of failure, uncertainty and loneliness and eventually helps fuel the paranoid fears in characters of the Hack and later Gulliver. The character Gulliver also parallels Swifts life of fighting his way through the mists of his own desires and confusion.

Most of Swift’s solutions to problems he presented to us in his writings, is one of compromise (Bloom, p14). Faced by extreme philosophies, extreme moral and political systems, Swift assumes a position between them, follows the middle way which will allow him to take advantage of the partial truths on either side and to drop what seems to him valueless (Bloom, p13). This necessity affects the form and the content of his satires.

The Tale

In A Tale of a Tub, Swift uses “the classic opening line (’once upon a time ‘)”(Hunting, p29). This is the opening line that begins a number of fictional tales, after which he uses an allegory about a dad (Christ) who has three offspring: “Peter (the Roman Catholic Church); Martin (the Church of England); and Jack (the various sects of Protestant dissentries)” (Hunting, p29). On his deathbed, the dad leaves a will (the New Testament) and gives each of his offspring a brand new coat (the Church). The dad’s final order is that the coats cannot be changed and the three offspring should live together in the same dwelling “like brethren and friends.” From now until the end of the tale there is an extremely correct and accurate allegory of Christian church history.

In the story, the brothers have to remain as fashionable as their acquaintances. At one point they desire to dress in the shoulder knots, which were very appealing at the time. When they look over their dad’s will to find out if they are permitted to dress their coats in that manner they find out that the will doesn’t address a question such as that. The confused brothers have no clue as to what they should do at this point, until they come up with a stroke of genius. They start to pick out certain letters in the will, they take an “s” out of this word, and an “h” out of that word, etc It doesn’t take them long at all to get what they desire: S,H,O,U,L,D,E,R C,N,O,T,S. Since there was no “K” in the will, they figured that a “C” would suffice. Now that there is no longer a problem the brothers can do anything to their coats that they wish, “And this their fathers will (the word of God) is perverted” (Hunting, p30). While all this is taking place, the brothers begin to fight amongst each other. Since they can’t manage to live together in the same of irony. Through his writings we see that he has seen himself as proud, isolated, house (the body of Christ), they go their separate ways. This is in direct defiance of their dad’s will.

As we see the three brother’s characters unfold, we begin to see Swift’s obvious favorite, Martin. Jack is characterized as a very mean spirited and gruff person; Peter is not very well explained; Martin however, is considered the sensible one out of the three brothers (Hunting, p29-30). Swift manages to show that throughout his tale but,

“Swift’s technique was applied more effectively in section 6, in which alluding allegorically to the Reformation, he distinguishes between the three treatments given to the finery that each of the brothers had added to their coats” (Hunting, p31).”

Peter (Roman Catholicism) added much decoration to his coat because he fancied it like that. Jack had desecrated because “he rips out all the finery on his coat, thus ruining it (Twvenson, p8). Martin on the other hand took off all that he could (Hunting, p31) and thus, the Tale (Swift) makes the Church of England appear to be the closest to perfection (Hunting, p30).

Swifts Tale of a Tub is a religious allegory meant to point to the abuses in Religion. But some people in his times advised him against publication, and believed he had gone beyond his initial intentions to satirize abuses in religion. Because of the strong influence the Church had on him, Swifts powerful imagination put his satire into conflict with beliefs that he would ordinarily be expected to hold, like a belief in the sacraments of his own church (Paulson, p48).


Did Swift’s literary works represent the time in which he lived? I believe one should not judge that until they fully understand Swift. In my paper I made references towards Swift’s views of himself, this may have seemed irrelevant at the time but it has a great importance in comparison to the times in which he lived. In every authors works there is some trace of the world that surrounds them. It is the world around them that shaped that person, and thus shaped their subject matter and refined their writing style.

Jonathan Swift’s works were not only filled with his beliefs and feelings about himself; they also contained a number of political or religious references. All his works, even if in a small way, incorporate current events of the time. He not only wrote political essays for the Tory party, he incorporated the Tory beliefs in some of his stories (A Tale of a Tub). This fact among the one previously stated should be more than enough to substantiate the truth that his works did reflect the times in which he lived.


1. McDougal, Little. Literature. Evanston: McDougal Littel & Company, 1989.

2. Quintana, Ricardo. “A Commentary on the Method of Swift.” Swift. Ed. Edward Twveson. N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964.

3. Twvenson, Edward. “Introduction.” Swift. Ed. Edward Twvenson. N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964.

4. Hunting, Robert. Jonathan Swift. Massachusetts: Hall, 1989.

5. Bloom, Harold. “Introduction.” Modern Critical Views-Jonathan Swift. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.

6. Golden, Morris. The Self Observed. Maryland: Hopkins, 1972.

7. Read, Charles A. Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). Dublin, 1880. ajmorris/ireland/swift.htm.

8. Lee, Jaffe. Biography. Last updated February 8, 1999.

9. Hartpole, William E. Biographical Introduction. Last Updated February 20, 1998 brians/hum_303/enlightenment.html.

10. Paulson, Ronald. “The Parody of Eccentricity.” Modern Critical Views-Jonathan Swift. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.