Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In Martin Eden, London turned away from writing science fiction and adventure tales to write a realistic study of a working-class writer’s struggle to survive while educating himself. Many critics have called this book London’s masterpiece.
For all their verve and philosophical pungency, London’s adventure novels lack the breadth and sympathetic observation found in serious realistic fiction. In The Sea-Wolf, to take one example, although there is a wealth of incident, the actions revolve around the three central characters. No broad social canvas is painted. The complexity of the plot of Martin Eden, on the other hand, makes it necessary for the author to portray all of San Francisco society.
Martin Eden is an out-of-work sailor who is invited to the Morse home because he has helped one of the sons, who had been set upon by ruffians. In the home, he is enthralled by the college-age daughter, Ruth Morse, having never encountered such a vision of feminine purity before. Spurred by his growing affection, Martin determines to live by his brain rather than his back: He will be an author.
While keeping contact with Ruth, he is forced to take handouts from his sister or work at casual labor when his money runs low and the rejection slips pile up. He moves through many sectors of society, from the upper-middle-class world of the Morses to the petit bourgeois world of his sister to the lower-class environs...
(The entire section is 866 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Alfred Kazan observed that “the greatest story Jack London ever wrote was the story that he lived.” Martin Eden is London’s most autobiographical character, and the story of his rise from a waterfront tough to a celebrated writer is close to London’s own, his portrait of the artist as a young man. It begins with Martin, an uncouth sailor, rescuing Arthur Morse from a gang of muggers. When Morse takes him to his home, Martin is awed by its paintings, books, and elegance and becomes instantly enamored of Morse’s pale, ethereally beautiful sister Ruth. Her presence makes him painfully aware of his clumsy walk, his rough, slangy speech, his lack of education, and his ignorance of manners. His infatuation with her is the catalyst prompting him to overcome these handicaps, rise to her level, and win her love. Calling himself “god’s own mad lover,” he plunges wholeheartedly into educating himself, reading omnivorously and trying to become a writer. What he lacks in refinement he makes up for in animal vitality, sensitivity, and intelligence. Ruth, by contrast, seems to him all spirit, and he elevates her to a pedestal as a saint. Only gradually does he become aware of her limitations. Though she is a college graduate, her education is shallow, her refinement superficial, her politics extremely conservative. She finds Martin’s robust love for life both magnetic and threatening, and when he shows her the stories he has written, uncompromisingly realistic...
(The entire section is 376 words.)