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.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

1. Does this novel express or imply a yearning for the past? What are some of the crucial similarities and differences between the America of...

(The entire section is 162 words.)

Techniques / Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Sot-Weed Factor is a flamboyant imitation of an eighteenth-century novel. The narrator adopts the tone and locutions of period...

(The entire section is 233 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Sot-Weed Factor continues the existential themes of Barth's first two novels. In its concern with value and action, it recalls the...

(The entire section is 131 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.