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...
(The entire section is 866 words.)