I want to share with you one of the most fascinating novels I have ever come across: “Martin Eden” by Jack London. Plot summary:
We are first introduced to Martin Eden as a poor uneducated sailor. former sailor from a working-class background, who falls in love with the young, bourgeois Ruth and educates himself to become a writer, aiming to win her hand in marriage. But one day he was invited to Morse house, because of Martin meets his paramore Ruth Morse while visiting her house for dinner after he saved her brother’s life in a fight in the streets. Martin sees himself for who he really is, an uneducated fool compared to Ruth’s almost completed English degree from Berkeley and seeks to better himself through grammar, reading, and ettiquette. 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…Martin is able to pass in polite society thanks to his co-teachers, Ruth and the Public Library and he continues his wooing of Ruth. As Martin grows more and more educated through his work at the library and his educational excursions into the middle class society of Ruth’s world he realizes he doesn’t fit in his working class world and seeks to escape his world through writing what he classifies as literature and sending it to monthly magazines.
As months go by and Martin’s amateurish work goes unpublished, he becomes more pretentious and even more broke. He realizes that he is better than Ruth and her world at the same time Ruth realizes she is in love with Martin and they become engaged. As Martin sinks into literary obscurity and poverty, Ruth begins to realize that her romantic conception of a starving artist is not as glamorous as she would have hoped, since Martin is slumming. Right before Martin achieves the literary glory he has strived for in order to support himself and Ruth as a family, she rejects him, having grown restless with his poverty.
Martin has succeeded in his goal to become a writer that is valued by the literary world and seen for his brilliance however he has lost all that he wanted his success for-Ruth. Instead of enjoying his success, Martin retreats into seclusion and finally ends his misery through drowning himself. Because Eden is a rough, uneducated sailor from a working-class background and the Morses are a bourgeois family, a union between them would be impossible unless and until he reached their level of wealth and refinement.
Over a period of two years, Eden promises Ruth that success will come, but just before it does, Ruth loses her patience and rejects him in a letter, saying, “if only you had settled down … and attempted to make something of yourself”. By the time Eden attains the favour of the publishers and the bourgeoisie who had shunned him, he has already developed a grudge against them and become jaded by toil and unrequited love. Instead of enjoying his success, he retreats into a quiet indifference, interrupted only to rail mentally against the genteelness of bourgeois society or to donate his new wealth to working-class friends and family.
The novel ends with Eden’s committing suicide by drowning, which contributed to what researcher Clarice Stasz calls the “biographical myth” that Jack London’s own death was a suicide.
Social class, seen from Eden’s point of view, is a very important theme in the novel. Eden is a sailor from a working-class background who feels uncomfortable but inspired when he first meets the bourgeois Morse family. As he improves himself, he finds himself increasingly distanced from his working-class background and surroundings, becoming repelled by Lizzie’s hands. Eventually, when Eden finds that his education has far surpassed that of the bourgeoisie he looked up to, he feels more isolated than ever. Paul Berman comments that Eden cannot reconcile his present “civilized and clean” self with the “fistfighting barbarian” of the past, and that this inability causes his descent into a delirious ambivalence.
Eden differs from London in that Eden rejects socialism, attacking it as “slave morality”, and relies on a Nietzschean individualism. In a note to Upton Sinclair, London wrote, “One of my motifs, in this book, was an attack on individualism (in the person of the hero). I must have bungled, for not a
single reviewer has discovered it.”