The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Martin Eden is Jack London’s self-portrait; an early edition of the novel with a picture of Martin as a frontispiece gives him the face of Jack London. Like Martin, London came from an impoverished and adventurous background. The illegitimate son of a wandering fortune-teller, London spent his childhood in poverty in Oakland, California; as a teenager he became a waterfront tough, an oyster pirate, a member of the fish patrol, and a common seaman on a sealing schooner in the Bering Sea and the islands off Japan. Later, he became a hobo, was imprisoned for vagrancy, and prospected in the Yukon and Klondike gold rush. When he meets Ruth Morse, Martin Eden knows far more of the world than she, but he lacks book knowledge, and her refined though limited knowledge of literature at first makes him feel inferior. He fears making a fool of himself in her presence and her set, but later, when he becomes confident of his powers, he walks among them like a prince among jackals. At first he is overflowing with vitality, and as he begins to flex his intellectual muscles, he finds learning and writing to be the greatest adventure of all. Yet the more he develops intellectually and artistically, the more he sees through the pretense and sham of the Morses and of genteel society, and his knowledge, which at first seems liberating, leads him to despair.

Ruth is based upon London’s early romance with Mabel Applegarth in San Francisco. For a while, the reader sees her...

(The entire section is 495 words.)