The Converting Imagination: Linguistic Theory and Swift's Satiric Prose

Synopsis

By illuminating Jonathan Swift's fascination with language, Marilyn Francus shows how the linguistic questions posed by his work are at the forefront of twentieth-century literary criticism: What constitutes meaning in language? How do people respond to language? Who has (or should have) authority over language? Is linguistic value synonymous with literary value?

Francus starts with a detailed analysis of Swift's linguistic education, which straddled a radical transition in linguistic thought, and its effect on his prose. This compelling beginning includes sometimes surprising historical information about the teaching and learning of linguistics and language theory in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Swift's academic studies reflected the traditional universalist view that seeks an Adamic language to reverse the fragmentation of Babel and achieve epistemological unity. But Swift's tutor also exposed him to the contemporary linguistics of the scientific societies and of John Locke, who argued that the assignment of linguistic meaning is arbitrary and subjective, capturing an individual's understanding at a particular instant. These competing theories, Francus maintains, help explain the Irish writer's conflicting inclinations toward both linguistic order and freewheeling creativity.

To develop a complete vision of Swiftian linguistics, Francus focuses on A Tale of a Tub as the archetypal linguistic text in the Swift canon, but she also includes evidence from his other famous works, including Gulliver's Travels, A Modest Proposal, Journal to Stella, and The Bickerstaff Papers, as well as from his lesser known religious and political tracts and his correspondence. In addition, Francus draws on the relevant work of contemporary linguists (such as Wilkins, Watts, Dyche, and Stackhouse), philosophers (Hobbes and Locke), and authors (including Temple, Sprat, Dryden, Pope, Addison, and Defoe).

Francus concludes that Swift occupies a pivotal place in literary history: his conscious emphasis on textuality and extended linguistic play anticipates not only the future of satiric prose but the modern novel as well.