A real Ebenezer Cooke lived in colonial Maryland and wrote a satirical poem entitled “The Sot-Weed Factor” (1708). Very little is known of the historical Cooke, so John Barth, who was born in Maryland and spent his early life there, set out to write a novel in the style of the time in which Cooke lived. The novel creates the experiences that might have brought Cooke to write such a poem. Barth’s novel The Sot-Weed Factor is a long, hilarious, complex work that has echoes not only of eighteenth century novels but also of the other literary models that the eighteenth century novelists used. The ideological viewpoint of the novel, however, reflects its twentieth century origins. Its language and humor are of the eighteenth century; its themes and philosophical implications are of the twentieth.
Barth’s most obvious eighteenth century model is Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749), which Fielding described as a “comic epic in prose.” The Sot-Weed Factor is comic in the ordinary and dramatic senses; it is filled with jokes of which Eben is usually the target, yet all is finally resolved in Eben’s favor. The Sot-Weed Factor also has elements of the epic. An epic is about a heroic figure who fights through difficulties to do good not only for him- or herself but also for his or her people. Eben finally does help to establish a peaceful and prosperous Maryland after being captured by pirates and Indians, reduced to servitude, and physically attacked and threatened with death numerous times. Eben is an ironic, comic hero, and instead of confronting all these dangers and emerging victorious through his own efforts, he frequently escapes through luck or the intervention of others, particularly Burlingame, who reappears in a bewildering number of identities and disguises.
An epic also involves a complex series of events, and Fielding set out in Tom Jones to construct a plot so complicated that no one would doubt its epic claims. Barth wanted to write a novel with a plot more convoluted than that of Fielding, and he succeeded. A plot twist exists on almost every page of The Sot-Weed Factor, and the novel features dozens of characters, subplots, and interpolated stories.
Earthy, physical, and sexual humor is also a distinguishing feature of eighteenth century novels such as those of Tobias Smollett, John Cleland, and Daniel Defoe. The Sot-Weed Factor is full of such comedy. Eben is often so frightened that he vomits or loses control of his bowels and bladder. Barth’s Joan Toast, like Moll Flanders, is a prostitute who journeys to the New World. This similarity makes The Sot-Weed Factor an imitation of yet another eighteenth century genre, the travel novel. Another of Defoe’s novels, Robinson Crusoe (1719), and Jonathan Swift’s satire Gulliver’s Travels (1726) are originals in this category. Most people in the eighteenth century had no chance to travel but loved to read of the new lands visited by explorers and colonists. Many of these original travel novels romanticized, idealized, or simply lied about the places they described. In Barth’s ironic novel, Eben’s naïve view of Maryland as a blissful paradise is shattered when he finds that it is instead a wilderness filled with dangers.
Finally, The Sot-Weed Factor is a twentieth century novel that masquerades as an eighteenth century novel. Barth has described his first three novels (The Floating Opera, 1956; The End of the Road, 1958; and The Sot-Weed Factor ) as examinations of philosophical nihilism, the theory that there is no ultimate meaning to life or existence. In the first two novels, characters announce their nihilistic...
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attitudes as a result of their philosophical speculations. InThe Sot-Weed Factor, a nihilistic world is something that happens to the main character, Eben. He begins life with certain received notions about truth, value, and human relationships. All of his assumptions are left in tatters; he finds that they cannot help him make his way in a world in which nothing is what it appears to be.
Eben thinks that the artificial ideals he has gleaned from his voracious reading will be a guide for behavior in the world. Instead, he finds a society devoted to greed, power, and the satiation of every base appetite. Moreover, the world is so confusing that no one can hope to understand it. For example, Lord Baltimore tells Eben to beware of the evil machinations of Jonathan Coode. Later, Eben discovers that Baltimore is considered by some to be just as evil as Coode, and he is further perplexed when he finds that the Baltimore who urged him to watch out for Coode was really his friend, Burlingame. Eben’s world turns upside down so many times that, in a memorable episode, as he rides along listening to one of Burlingame’s typically sophistic discourses, he wonders why he and the horse he is riding on do not tumble off a whirling, topsy-turvy planet.
The Sot-Weed Factor is not merely a hilarious novel offering no values. In the end, Eben abandons his dreams, and he is not bitter. He finds a new sense of value in his commitments to his friends and family. He becomes interested in people, not solely in ideas.