Places: The Sot-Weed Factor

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1960

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Picaresque

Time of work: Late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*London

*London. Sot-Weed Factor, TheCapital 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 confusion he and his fellow travelers are forced to walk the plank. Fortunately the ships are close to the Maryland shore, although, characteristically, Ebenezer is slow to recognize this. The sea-voyage section of the novel again fits well into the picaresque genre and locates the action within a setting (the sailing ship bound for the colonies) popularly associated with this period. Ebenezer has repeated aquatic misadventures. He ends up in the water numerous times for various reasons: ordered to walk the plank, forced overboard at gunpoint, and by the relatively simple expedient of a shipwreck. These can be seen as John Barth’s subtle commentary on his main character’s plight at being at the mercy of events.

*Chesapeake Bay

*Chesapeake Bay. Setting for most of Barth’s novels and key to the action in The Sot-Weed Factor. Focus is particularly on the “Eastern Shore” of Maryland, the inner coast of the Bay which is composed of innumerable small islands, inlets, and tidal rivers, in particular the Choptank River. During the time of the novel Maryland is still largely wilderness, home to American Indians as well as English settlers. The major town of the novel, Cambridge, is a rude, frontier settlement perched between the Choptank River and the vast expanse of forest. Most of the Marylanders in the novel live in even smaller, less civilized hamlets such as Church Creek, a place which boasts nothing more than an inn, a mill, and a few houses. Still others live in even greater isolation, in primitive cabins near the shore or hidden deep in the woods.

Part of the Chesapeake setting is even further removed in time and closer to the first days of European exploration and exploitation. Throughout the novel Ebenezer and the other characters search for a manuscript titled the “Privie Journall of Sir Henry Burlingame,” which recounts the “true” history of Captain John Smith’s famous adventures in America, including the hidden story of the “true” (and salacious) events regarding the Indian king Powhatan and his daughter the famous Pocohantas.


Malden. Maryland plantation built by Andrew Cooke, Ebenezer’s father. The estate consists of a fine manor house on Cooke’s Point on the Choptank River and a thousand acres of timber and excellent farmland. Malden is the final destination of all of Ebenezer’s travels, and its possession is his ultimate goal throughout the novel. The climactic scene of the book, the improvised hearing called by Maryland Governor Nicholson to unravel the actual identities of the various characters and determine the true owner of the estate, takes place in the front parlor of the manor house at Malden. In the novel, Malden serves both as an actual physical location whose possession provides the motive for many actions by several characters and as a symbolic representation of Ebenezer’s desires to claim his inheritance from his father and, at the same time, establish himself as a successful colonial planter. Malden derives further symbolic importance as the site of the graves of both Ebenezer’s mother and his wife, the whore Joan Toast, whom he finally marries. It is also the location where Ebenezer and his twin sister Anna are finally reunited and live out their lives in relative peace and prosperity.

BibliographyBowen, 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.
Categories: Places