Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Martin Eden is a novel of ideas rather than London’s usual narrative of adventure, and it is in some ways the high-water mark of his career. London’s literary credo was realism, often carried to grim, naturalistic extremes, and Martin’s writings embody that credo. Like his contemporaries Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser, London rebelled against the genteel tradition, represented by Ruth Morse, and against the more refined realism of novelist and critic William Dean Howells. Thus Martin’s literary success becomes a justification of London’s, though Martin’s breakthrough comes after a much longer and more grueling struggle than London’s and though London enjoyed his fame and fortune for years, while Martin commits suicide almost as soon as he becomes a celebrity. Despite his working-class background, Martin becomes a political reactionary. As he reads the philosophy of Herbert Spencer and Friedrich Nietzsche, he embraces their philosophy of social Darwinism and the superman; considering himself such a superman, he turns to denouncing socialism as the coddling of weaklings. At the same time, Martin is no friend of cutthroat capitalism, for he has suffered too much in sweatshops and seen the degradation of workers in wage slavery. Ruth is shocked to see Martin in public with working-class people; for her, a working-class origin is a stigma. Until he explains otherwise, she assumes that Martin is a socialist, and she equates socialism with treason. Unlike Martin, London himself was an ardent socialist. Socialism, though, is incompatible with Social Darwinism, and in the many political arguments that occur in the latter part of Martin Eden, London does not intend readers to accept Martin’s denunciations of the weak and his exaltation of the strong. Indeed, London later wrote that the novel was an argument against ruthless individualism and that if Martin Eden had been a socialist, he would never have killed himself.