Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Ebenezer, or Eben, Cooke and his twin sister, Anna, are born in 1666 to Andrew Cooke on a tobacco, or sot-weed, plantation at Cooke’s Point in the colony of Maryland. Their mother dies giving birth and their father returns to England, hiring eventually as his children’s tutor a young man who had been found floating in Chesapeake Bay with the name Henry Burlingame III pinned to his chest. Burlingame hopes to find the secret journal of Captain John Smith. Burlingame had an ancestor who had served with the famous explorer and thought that the secret of his birth might be found in the journal.
Eben goes to Cambridge for his formal education. After a period of indecision and carousal with his friends, he finally determines that he wants to be a poet. Burlingame also reappears to assist Eben during this period. Andrew Cooke asks him to return to Maryland to take over the operation of the family plantation. Two events then occur to shape Eben’s future.
On a dare, Eben meets a prostitute named Joan Toast, and he is taken by her beauty and personality. Instead of having sex with her, he vows eternal devotion to her and to preserve his virginity eternally. John McEvoy, Joan’s pimp, wants Eben to pay for the time he spent with her even though there had been no sex. Eben gains an enemy. The second important event is Eben’s interview with Charles Calvert, Lord Baltimore and former governor of Maryland, who appoints Eben poet laureate of Maryland...
(The entire section is 798 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Barth’s third novel, perhaps his most widely acclaimed critical success, is written as a flamboyant imitation of an eighteenth century novel. His narrator adopts the tone and the locutions of eighteenth century narrators, and his descriptions of early colonial life in Maryland and of life in the London of the period are designed to recall the descriptions known of those places from contemporary literature. The importance of this narrative strategy is twofold: On one hand, the parodic imitation of an earlier novelistic style draws the reader’s attention to the ways in which this narrative is purely a product of fictional conventions; on the other hand, the density of authentic historical detail in the text consistently suggests to the reader that Barth is re-creating a plausible, although wildly humorous, colonial milieu. By exploiting the tension between these competing claims, Barth is able to suggest the absence of any but a fictional order and at the same time present a compelling necessity for choice and action, as suggested by the realistic aspects of the novel.
One of the most conspicuous features of The Sot-Weed Factor is its immensely complicated plot, itself a feature of the assertion of artifice in Barth’s fiction; like Barth’s earlier fiction, The Sot-Weed Factor demonstrates his preoccupation with value and action. Ebenezer Cooke, the novel’s protagonist and the son of a Maryland “sot-weed factor,” or tobacco...
(The entire section is 888 words.)