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

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

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

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


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.


For centuries, literature in the Western world was dominated by the belief that a universal, Adamic language could restore the fragmentation of Babel and thereby achieve epistemological unity. The foundations of this largely unchallenged wisdom buckled unexpectedly with the publication of Locke Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), which argued, much in the manner proposed by twentieth-century theorists, that the assignment of linguistic meaning is arbitrary and ultimately subjective. Like a series of snapshots that freeze a specific time and place, language captures an individual's understanding at a particular point in time. Although consensus definition makes basic communication possible, the variant linguistic associations of both writer and reader ensure a degree of textual misapprehension. Over time, accumulated connotations and denotations ensure textual erosion.

The eighteenth century was heir to Locke's work, and its authors were the first to wrestle with the implications of his cognitive and linguistic theories. As an author at this pivotal juncture in linguistic history, Swift contends with the entire scope of verbal potential and limitation. Of course, all authors are forced to confront language, and in a broad sense, Swift's response to language is just as paradigmatic as any other author's. Yet unlike his contemporaries, or even many of his successors, Swift's encounter with his medium is unusually illuminating on biographical, historical, and theoretical levels. Swift's approach to language brings forth his unique (and conflicting) obsessions with literary immortality and linguistic creativity; Swift's prose also reflects the uneasy shift from traditional to modern linguistic thought as well as the radical changes in perception, psychology, and identity that many turn-of-the-eighteenth-century writers did not fully understand or pursue. Finally, Swift's fascination with language prefigures the dominance of language as a subject in the twentieth century, for the questions that Swift's work poses (What is language?

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