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.
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...
(The entire section is 1,555 words.)