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 planter, is raised as an orphan in England together with his twin sister, Anna. After an education at home supervised by the family’s tutor, Henry Burlingame, himself educated at the University of Cambridge but without familial connections, Ebenezer goes off to Cambridge, where his wild imagination and inability to take the world seriously make him an indifferent student at best. Ebenezer’s disposition here recalls the problems of Todd Andrews in Barth’s first novel and will be the source of many of his future difficulties.
After returning from Cambridge, Ebenezer embarks on a career as a poet in London. Hopelessly naïve, he takes his own innocence and literal virginity as a sign of his calling, and he obtains a commission as the poet laureate of Maryland before he is sent to that colony to oversee his father’s estate. Again, Cooke’s career as a poet is significant: There was a historical Ebenezer Cooke, who wrote well-known satires on life in colonial Maryland, including one that shares the title of Barth’s novel. Parts of these poems are included in this narrative.
Cooke and his scheming servant are intercepted by pirates while crossing the Atlantic Ocean, and, after being taken prisoner, they are forced to walk the plank. They manage to swim to shore and make their way to Maiden, the site of Cooke’s father’s estate. Ebenezer then manages to lose his estate in a bizarre afternoon of impromptu colonial justice, and he only regains it with great difficulty, with the considerable help of Burlingame, his former tutor, who is embroiled in dark political intrigues in the American colonies involving Lord Baltimore, William Penn, the French, and the Indians. These political schemes are an important part of Barth’s thematic concern with the absence of any sure knowledge in the world and with the often obscure effects of any single human action. These political machinations are complemented in the novel by the presence of Barth’s rewriting of the journal of Captain John Smith, the early Virginia explorer and adventurer, which calls into question the Pocahontas legend—and, by implication, much early American history.
Ebenezer’s sister, Anna, follows him to America, largely to pursue her passion for Burlingame, and these three are reunited at Maiden after the estate has...
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been wrestled away from those who had turned it into a brothel and an opium den. In large part, Ebenezer’s successful reclaiming of his plantation is dependent upon the good graces and legal authority of Joan Toast, a former London prostitute (and Ebenezer’s first near-mistress). Although syphilitic and dying, she marries Ebenezer, and it is his consummation of this marriage that allows him to regain legal title to his inheritance. At the end of the narrative, Burlingame disappears into the machinations of political life, and Joan Toast dies along with her infant son, but Ebenezer’s sister’s son, Andrew, lives and is raised by Ebenezer and his sister at Maiden.
With the publication of his satire upon Maryland, Ebenezer’s laureateship is withdrawn, but it is offered again later in his life by one of Lord Baltimore’s heirs. Ebenezer declines this offer, however, and dies with little recognition. Barth’s narrator uses this ending to assert the distance between fiction and fact by drawing attention to the regaining of Ebenezer’s estate, which should be the natural conclusion to the story, and the ambiguous and inconclusive events that he describes at the end of the narrative. In this way, the structure of Barth’s narrative and the narrator’s commentary upon that structure are employed to reinforce the thematic preoccupations so consistently found in his fiction.
The Sot-Weed Factor marks an important advance in Barth’s fiction. The use of parody, the elaborate structural devices in the novel, and the self-conscious narrator all point to strategies that Barth subsequently found increasingly congenial to his aesthetic program.