Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*London. Capital and leading city of England. The last years of the seventeenth century and first years of the eighteenth were a time of exploration, growth, and enormous vitality. The novel’s central character, Ebenezer Cooke, quickly abandons his studies at Cambridge University to live in London, where he pursues his avocation as a poet by frequenting coffeehouses with his fellow versifiers. During his stay in the capital, Ebenezer manages to sample the full range of London life, from the lowest to the highest. On one hand, he meets and falls in love with the whore Joan Toast but cannot convince her to marry him, while on the other he visits Henry Calvert, Lord Baltimore, and persuades that nobleman to make Ebenezer poet laureate of Maryland, even though Baltimore no longer has actual ownership of the colony.

The picturesque locations, the extravagant dialogue of the characters, and the intense vitality of the city of London are essential ingredients of the genre of the picaresque novel, to which The Sot-Weed Factor belongs. The extremes of poverty and wealth and the mixture of refined culture and coarse, common life are rendered vividly both to establish a sense of reality and location and to contrast with later scenes in Maryland, a colony which has not yet had time to develop the intricate layers of social custom and history found in the Old World.


*Poseidon. Ship on which Ebenezer sails from England to reclaim his father’s plantation of Malden in Maryland. Aboard the ship, Ebenezer and his manservant exchange identities, the first in a series of such masquerades and personal confusions, which form a repeated subtext of the novel. Like London, the Poseidon is a microcosm of the society of the day, but it is decidedly skewed to the more coarse and common side of existence. The brutality aboard ship becomes literally unbearable when the vessel is seized by pirates. This first capture is followed by the assault of the Cyprian, a vessel full of women bound for the American colonies. The mass rape which follows both horrifies and excites Ebenezer, but before he can resolve his moral...

(The entire section is 900 words.)