The Sot-Weed Factor

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Barth examines ideas about innocence and experience in this novel. Its protagonist, Ebenezer Cooke, travels from London to the Edenic new world, where he enacts an Adamic lapse, loses his patrimony, and then must go through numerous painful trials to regain it. Also drawn to the new world is Henry Burlingame, Eben’s friend and tutor. Burlingame, a foundling, engages in a search for his father, who turns out to be the half-breed son of one of Captain John Smith’s companions.

Henry and Eben represent contrasting attitudes to experience. Eben, the archetypal innocent, prides himself on his double calling as poet and virgin. The more admirable Henry, on the other hand, embraces every kind of experience, especially the sexual experience that Eben foolishly avoids. In traditional terms, Burlingame is the foul tempter, but in Barth’s revision of the familiar myths of innocence and experience, this “serpent” is a Blakean incarnation of redemptive sexual energy.

He is also, without overt anachronism, an embodiment of 20th century thinking. He describes the world and humanity’s place in it in modern, existential terms. He is continually engaged in creating and modifying his own identity.

In THE SOT-WEED FACTOR, then, Barth brilliantly attacks the traditional valuation of innocence as a Christlike virtue. Eben’s pretensions to virginal purity cause suffering for himself and others, and thus his understanding comes when he...

(The entire section is 432 words.)