Books Magazine

Book #63: The Sot-Weed Factor

By Robert Bruce @robertbruce76

That was one of the strangest books I’ve ever read.

The Sot-Weed Factor is simultaneously entertaining and exhausting. It’s incredibly funny while also being incredibly frustrating.

The book seems to have countless obstacles to work through just to enjoy it.

Some examples:

1)   The dialogue. I’ve talked about this in previous posts, but you have to get used to the “Old English” style dialogue. Like, “Lookee, the day’s nigh spent; ’tis gone careening into time forever. Not a tale’s length past we lined our bowels with dinner, and already they growl for more. We are dying men, Ebenezer: i’faith, there’s time for naught but bold resolves!”

2)   The slow pace. The Sot-Weed Factor is a long story, more than 700 pages, so it can be cumbersome.

3)   The confusing characters. Characters change names and identities multiple times, plus there’s dozens of characters in the first place. It’s a little reminiscent of I, Claudius in that sense.

So those were some major obstacles—at least I view them as obstacles—that got in the way of The Sot-Weed Factor experience. But, in spite of those obstacles, I still really enjoyed this novel.

I had never heard of John Barth or The Sot-Weed Factor before tackling this project, but I’ve grown to appreciate Barth’s style and creativity while reading this book.

So what’s it about?

Wow. It’s difficult to describe succinctly. But here’s a horrible summary:

The novel, which is set in the late 1600s, follows Ebenezer Cooke from London to Maryland while on commission to write an epic poem about this new Maryland territory. Along the way, he repeatedly fails at losing his virginity, gets kidnapped by pirates and savages, and encounters more prostitutes than a bachelor party on the Vegas strip.

Within that basic plot, there’s also Ebenezer’s friend and mentor, Henry Burlingame, who is on a quest to discover his lineage, while posing as dozens of different characters along the way. Then there’s this strange relationship between Ebenezer, his sister, Anna, and Burlingame, as well as Ebenezer’s pursuit and infatuation with the prostitute named Joan Toast.

And to close things out, we’ll just say eggplant plays a prominent role in the novel. Oh, does it ever. I’ll never think of eggplant the same way again.

The best comparison I can make with this novel is Monty Python or The Princess Bride. It’s that style of clever and, sometimes, vulgar and disturbing humor.

You remember the passage about poop I pulled out of the novel? Here’s a reminder:

“Pirates, you say! Well, ’tis not impossible, after all. But say, thou’rt all beshit and must be scrubbed.”

Ebenezer groaned. “Ignominy! How waddle to the wharf in this condition, to fetch clean breeches?”

“Marry, I said naught o’ waddling, sir,” said Burlingame, in the tones of  a country servant. “Only fetch off thy drawers and breeches now, that me  little Dolly maught clean ‘em out, and I shall bring ye fresh ‘uns.”


“Aye, Joan Freckles yonder in the King o’ the Seas.”

Ebenezer blushed. “And yet she is a woman, for all her harlotry, and I the Laureate of Maryland! I cannot have her hear oft.”

“Hear oft!” Burlingame laughed. “You’ve near suffocated her already!  Who was it found you on the floor, d’ye think, and helped me fetch you  hither? Off with ‘em now, Master Laureate, and spare me thy modesty.  ‘Twas a woman wiped thy bum at birth and another shall in dotage: what matter if one do’t in between?” And Ebenezer having undone his buttons  with reluctance, his friend made bold to give a mighty jerk, and the poet stood exposed.

“La now!’ chuckled Burlingame. “Thou’rt fairly made, if somewhat fouled.”

“I die of shame and cannot even cover myself for filth,” the poet complained. “Do make haste, Henry, ere someone find me thus!”

That’s a great example of both the dialogue and the style of humor.  Come on…how funny is it to read about someone “beshatting their breeches?”

Another example occurs when a group of pirates drink some bad water and get a horrible case of dysentery. Their stomach sickness causes them to throw their pants overboard. So you have a large group of pantsless pirates with dysentery.

If that’s not interesting enough, the pirates then begin using their rear ends, and the resulting gas, as a weapon against savages they encounter after arriving in Maryland. I’ll leave it at that.

If you think about it, Barth isn’t just making this up to be funny. Dysentery was a major issue back in the 1600s. Not only that, but poop was everywhere…literally. We take modern plumbing for granted.

But The Sot Weed Factor isn’t all poop and prostitutes, there’s actually an underlying meaning. Through all the disguises and identity changes, through all of Ebenezer’s self-searching and Burlingame’s search for his family, the novel lands on one major theme: Finding identity.

In the middle of all of The Sot-Weed Factor’s silliness and vulgarness, it actually has a serious message. We’re not poet laureates or prostitutes or homeless pirates, but we’re all searching for ourselves in some way. [cue Hallmark music]


John Barth

John Barth is outstanding at masking some deep issues within a lot of witty and clever satire.

Yes, The Sot-Weed Factor is a satire. But, honestly, if I didn’t know that I would just think it’s a funny novel. I’m not very familiar at all with the picaresque novel, the style of story that Barth is satirizing here.

So bottom line: If you’re willing to put in a little work and invest in the characters, you might enjoy this novel. If, after 100 pages or so, you hate it, then I would put it down and move on. The pacing and “Old English” style dialogue stays the same throughout the book.

For me, this was a worthy read. I don’t know if I would ever read it again, but I’m really interested in seeing what Steven Soderburgh does with his mini-series. Can’t wait to see that whenever it comes out.

Other Thoughts

The Opening Line: ”In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes  stretched to the snapping-point.”

The Meaning: The Sot-Weed Factor is literally interpreted as “The Tobacco Trader.” During the 1600s, Maryland’s primary crop was tobacco, which resulted in a ton of trade traffic, pirates, prostitutes, and so on. That’s the setting for this novel.

Highlights: Barth is a clever, witty writer. He manages to make dull, Old English-style dialogue interesting and entertaining to read. The characters are also well developed and easy to empathize with.

Lowlights: Stories within stories within stories. Many characters who change identities multiple times. The book can be pretty confusing.

Memorable Line: “Is man a savage at heart, skinned o’er with fragile Manners? Or is savagery but a faint taint in the natural man’s gentility, which erupts now and again like pimples on an angel’s arse?”

Final Thoughts:  As I mention in the review, if you like satire you might like The Sot-Weed Factor. However, if you’ve read 100 pages and can’t get into it, I would give up. It takes a while to get into the flow and rhythm of Barth’s writing and dialogue.

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