The Sot-Weed Factor

by John Barth

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The Sot-Weed Factor

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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 reproaches himself for “the crime of innocence, whereof the Knowledged must bear the burthen. There’s the true Original Sin our souls are born in: not that Adam learned, but that he had to learn--in short, that he was innocent.”

Bibliography:

Bowen, Zack. A Reader’s Guide to John Barth. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. The chapter on The Sot-Weed Factor treats the book as both a parody of earlier forms and as a contemporary novel. Extensive bibliography on The Sot-Weed Factor.

Miller, Russell H. “The Sot-Weed Factor: A Contemporary Mock Epic.” Critique 8, no. 2 (Winter, 1965-1966): 88-100. Examines the relationships between The Sot-Weed Factor and various classical and eighteenth century models, with a point-by-point comparison of Eben’s adventures to those of Odysseus.

Morrell, David. John Barth: An Introduction. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976. An overview of all of Barth’s work to 1976, with two chapters analyzing The Sot-Weed Factor as a contemporary novel.

Safer, Elaine. “The Allusive Mode and Black Humor in Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor.” Studies in the Novel 13 (1981): 424-438. Discusses the novel in contemporary and postmodern contexts.

Walkiewicz, E. P. John Barth. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Excellent short introduction to Barth’s work, with numerous comments on The Sot-Weed Factor. Bibliography.

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Critical Evaluation