62 pages 2 hours read

Jack London

Martin Eden

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1909

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Summary and Study Guide


Martin Eden is a 1909 novel by American author Jack London. Known for his stories of adventure and use of naturalism and realism, London authored more than 50 books, including Call of the Wild and White Fang, before his untimely death at age 40. London wrote Martin Eden at the height of his literary career, inspired by his own disillusionment with fame and literary critics. Although the protagonist’s individualist principles are at odds with London’s socialist politics, many elements of the novel are based on London’s life, including Martin’s life as a sailor, and the character Russ Brissenden is based on London’s friend George Sterling, an American poet. Thematically, Martin Eden focuses on social class, education, and the existential hollowness of fame. As a work of literary realism, the novel depicts the harsh conditions of the American working class in the early 1900s, starkly contrasting them against the decadence of an out-of-touch bourgeoisie. The novel has inspired several film adaptations, as well as numerous songs by diverse artists.

This guide uses the Project Gutenberg public domain e-book: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1056.

Content Warning: This novel contains depictions of depression and suicide and outdated views of racial and ethnic minorities.

Plot Summary

Martin Eden is a young sailor living in Oakland, California. He’s uneducated yet instinctively longs for knowledge and intellectual stimulation. When he saves the upper-class Arthur Morse from an assault by a gang of hooligans, Arthur invites Martin to dinner. There, Martin meets Arthur’s beautiful sister, Ruth, and immediately falls in love. To Martin, Ruth represents all that’s good in the world, and he immediately resolves to improve himself to become worthy of her. The refined culture of the Morse house opens Martin’s eyes to a world he never knew existed and to which he now aspires.

Martin’s chief flaw is his lack of education: He didn’t finish grammar school, let alone high school or university. He begins self-educating through extensive reading of library books. With Ruth’s help and his keen intelligence, he manages to cobble together an education, beginning by learning proper grammar and formal English and eventually branching into the sciences. Martin takes naturally to scientific philosophy, focusing particularly on Howard Spencer, a social Darwinist.

Martin’s focus on self-education and developing his relationship with Ruth leaves no time for work. His goal is to elevate himself socially, intellectually, and financially. Ruth believes that she can mold him into a proper bourgeois gentleman. However, she’s a product of her sheltered upbringing and fails to grasp the reality of day-to-day life for working-class people. While attempting to court Ruth, Martin meets Lizzie Connolly, a beautiful working-class girl, who quickly falls for him. However, Martin only has eyes for Ruth.

When his money runs out, Martin goes to sea on a treasure-hunting voyage, which becomes the subject of one of his early short stories. Having discovered a passion for writing, Martin throws his whole effort into a writing career. However, because he has no experience in publication or the literary world, he makes many mistakes and learns hard lessons. When none of his stories sell, Martin takes a job doing laundry at Shelly Hot Springs, a resort miles from Oakland. He works alongside Joe Dawson, who has spent his life toiling in laundries and drinks every weekend to forget his miserable life. The work is grueling and takes a toll despite Martin’s tough constitution. After three hellish months, Martin and Joe both quit. Martin returns to Oakland, while Joe plans to live as a transient person.

Exhausted from the laundry job, Martin takes a “vacation” from writing or studying. His relationship with Ruth deepens. Although she’s older than Martin, Ruth is ignorant of the ways of love and doesn’t realize that she’s falling in love with him. Her parents’ plan to use him to awaken Ruth to love backfires when she actually falls for him. They get engaged, though Ruth is apprehensive about their future prospects. Martin doubles down on his writing career, certain that he’ll succeed, and asks Ruth to give him two years to try. He writes many stories, essays, and poems but finds little success. Moving from his sister’s house, he rents a room from Maria Silva, a hard-working Portuguese widow in North Oakland.

Ruth’s parents begin a campaign to sway Ruth away from Martin. They begin inviting eligible and accomplished young people to dinners at their house. At one of these dinners, Martin meets Russ Brissenden, an enigmatic man who, though he has tuberculosis, embodies Martin’s philosophic and intellectual ideals. The two become best friends, sharing with each other their writings and ideas.

As Martin continues his intellectual pursuits, he becomes increasingly alienated. He can no longer relate to the working class, and he can see beyond the limitations of the bourgeois intelligentsia. Ruth and his family members try to persuade him to take a normal job, but Martin refuses, adamant that he’ll succeed as a writer. Brissenden, meanwhile, introduces him to philosophical bohemian circles and takes him to a socialist meeting, where a reporter mistakes him for a leader of the Socialist Party and writes a defamatory article about him. Ruth breaks off their engagement because of the potential social backlash from the article. Brissenden dies by suicide, leaving Martin without companionship.

Publishers inexplicably begin accepting Martin’s work after his poem “The Shame of the Sun” is published. Martin suddenly has more money than he knows what to do with. His stories top the literary charts, yet he cares little about fame. He feels numb and hollow, cut off from everything and everyone.

Martin reunites with Lizzie, who falls deeply in love with him. She’s one of the few people who love him for who he is, not for his fame and riches, since she cared about him before his fame. However, although he appreciates and admires Lizzie, he’s unable to return her love. Martin rewards Lizzie, Joe, and Maria for their faith in him, and he then plans to set off alone to the South Seas. On the way, however, the weight of his loneliness and the bitter disappointment of life crush his spirit, and he dies by suicide, plunging into the ocean from a ship at night and drowning.