Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 868 words.)