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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 201

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Martin Eden by Jack London is about the title character, Martin, and his struggles to become a successful author. He grows up poor towards the beginning of the 20th century in the area of Oakland, California.

Class is a big part of the book, and you’d be hard-pressed to write anything general about the book without mentioning it. A big motivator for Martin that pushes him through the plot is his interest in a woman named Ruth Morse. Her family is well-off, and she’s even described as being one of the “bourgeois”-or member of the more wealthy class- as opposed to Martin, who’s from the “proletariat” working class.

Martin wants to marry Ruth, but can’t because of the class differences. He tries to break into the literary world for two years, but eventually his great love grows tired of waiting and leaves. This class conflict is at the heart of the novel, and it will likely work best if you focus your efforts in your assignment on how class drives the plot of the book. This includes when Martin was poor and unsuccessful, while he was attempting to win over Ruth, and how he reacts afterward.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 866

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 of his sailor friends to the sub-proletarian bowels where he seeks employment. A reader completes the book with an awareness of life as a whole in early twentieth century California.

One drawback to London’s more popular adventure yarns is that they seem to lack subtlety of observation, or, to put it another way, the scenes of dogsled travel or seal hunting described in this fiction are so out of the ordinary that their novelty overrides any question of their freshness. In Martin Eden, by contrast, London depicts typical everyday events with a brilliant eye for detail along with a fine sense of structure. The long opening scene, for example, in which the hero comes to his first Morse dinner party, moves back and forth narratively between the sailor’s self-conscious gaucheries and Ruth Morse’s alternating attraction and repulsion toward the stranger.

Another beautifully rendered and observed scene occurs when Martin, after months of study and composition, attempts to rejoin his old mates for an evening of dancing and flirting. The failure of the attempt is poignantly pictured. As London concludes, “He was too far removed. Too many thousands of opened books yawned between them and him.” Scenes such as these hit home with the sensitive reader in a way the scenes in London’s more fabulous stories cannot.

The core of the book concerns the struggles of a writer in the United States, struggles which can be divided into two phases. In the first, before the writer is recognized, everyone disregards him. Martin does not know the ropes, so the magazines reject or fleece him. What work he does sell is underpaid. His girlfriend, who started him on this course, tells him to get a regular job.

The second phase starts when the writer becomes well known. Now everyone ignorantly lionizes him. Magazines beg for pieces they had previously rejected as obscene. His brother-in-law, who had despised him, now sheepishly comes to borrow money. Ruth, who had broken off their engagement because she believed a vituperative, false newspaper report about him, now comes back. His embittered conclusion is that genuine talent is never recognized for what it is. Although he has met a few discerning critics along the way, the vast majority merely follow the prevailing winds of fashion. This realization leads to Martin’s suicide.

The fact that Martin has met some truly selfless critics and writers during phases of his life makes his chosen ending somewhat puzzling and unconvincing, as it is more pessimistic than the evidence warrants. The suicide, though, as is all of the book, is described with London’s trademark vivacity.

London’s adventure writing, whatever its limitations, did have positive value. This discipline taught him to write sentences that crackled with a crisp authority. He puts his finger on that trait in his own writing when he mentions the critics’ growing appreciation of Martin’s prose. “It had been discovered that he was a stylist, with meat under his style.” To take one example from Martin Eden, this description of Martin’s early failures: “Even his earliest efforts were not marked with the clumsiness of mediocrity. What characterized them was the clumsiness of too great strength.” Stephen Crane or Ernest Hemingway, to whom London can be compared, could not produce such pithy, telling phrases.

Arguably, London’s most interesting innovation, following the lead of Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson (though London introduced a more philosophical bent), was to use adventure tales to delve into the troubling questions of evolution and the environment’s effect on human will. Yet to create his greatest novel, he had to step away from this type of fiction; in Martin Eden, he used a broader canvas to depict the adventure that is writing.

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