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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 269

Martin Eden is the protagonist, a writer with anti-socialist principles and a strongly individualist worldview. He works hard to achieve his ambitions and seeks to win the hand of Ruth Morse.

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He starts out as a sailor but slowly grows in book-learning, combining intellect with practical knowledge of the world. As the novel progresses, he becomes disenchanted with the bourgeois class and its values. He embraces extreme individualism and the idea of the "superman," while rejecting both capitalism and socialism. However, his extreme view leads to his eventual suicide.

Ruth Morse is from the bourgeois class and the apple of the eye of the working-class hero. Ruth falls for Martin; however, she refuses to be his wife without the consent of her parents, who find Martin's finances and social status wanting. While Ruth and her world initially appear ideal to Martin, he comes to see their lifestyle as a shallow sham. Ruth is revealed to be a snobby, cold woman and she rejects Martin when he can't make good fast enough.

Lizzie Connolly is an Irish-American worker who loves Martin. Her affections remain unrequited, but Martin appreciates how she loves him for who he is, sans money and prestige. Despite coming to realize the unworthiness of the snobby Ruth after she rejects him in a letter, Martin never settles down with Lizzie, since the class gulf between them is too great.

Russ Brissenden is a socialist poet who engages in political dialogue with Martin. However, he is not a well man and eventually commits suicide. Ironically, his book of poetry is published to great success just after his death.

The Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 495

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...

(The entire section contains 764 words.)

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Critical Essays