Jack London’s novel Martin Eden
(1909) centers on the character Martin Eden, a poor young sailor who has grown up in a working-class family without receiving any education. Martin dreams of being a writer and rising in the ranks of social class to show the world what he can do.
As the novel begins, Martin, who lives in Oakland, is struggling to rise out of his current circumstances as a destitute proletarian to make something of himself. He is on a mission to educate himself, which he believes is the key to bettering his life. He hopes to one day achieve the same status as some of the literary scholars he is studying.
One day, while working in his position as a sailor on a ferry, Martin defends Arthur Morse against a gang of hooligans. Roughly the same age as Martin, Arthur comes from a well-to-do family and has received a formal education. Wanting to show Martin his gratitude for having saved him, Arthur invites him to dinner, thinking that his family will get a kick out of having an eccentric stranger as their dinner guest.
Martin accepts Arthur’s invitation, following him to his family home, which he finds is filled with exquisite paintings, books, and music. Fascinated by the presence of such a rich culture in the Morse home, Martin feels quite humbled in comparison. Martin is especially enthralled by the presence of Arthur’s sister, Ruth, whom he believes to be the essence of purity and all that is good in the world. He is immediately determined to prove himself worthy of her. He knows that because of the status of the Morse family, a union between him and Ruth would be very unlikely unless he could somehow attain the same level of wealth and social status, a seemingly impossible mission.
Martin begins going to the library and reading extensively, immersing himself in the knowledge of languages and literature. He believes that he can educate himself enough to compete with others with a formal education. Ruth believes in Martin and helps him with his studies, acting as an encouraging presence in his life. However, Ruth’s approach is very much a product of her own experiences and background, which she tries to impose on Martin, unsuccessfully. She realizes that Martin is extremely different from the other men of her social circle and has difficulty coming to terms with this fact.
Meanwhile, Martin is running out of money. He has spent all of the money he earned on his last voyage, and must once again set sail in order to sustain himself and continue his studies. Martin has hired another sailor to help him on this journey, and together, they go off to sea for an eight-month voyage.
During this time, Martin continues to learn, having brought books with him. He improves a lot, enriching his vocabulary and learning a lot about himself along the way. During this voyage, Martin decides that he wants to become a writer. He feels that it will be a great way to relay his experiences traveling to the rest of the world, and especially to Ruth. He hopes to impress the girl with his writing and to share everything that he sees with her.
When Martin returns to Oakland, he begins his writing process. His first piece of writing is an essay on treasure hunters, which he sends to the San Francisco Observer
. He then starts to work on a story about whalers. During this time, he is overcome with excitement over his newfound passion, and he writes to Ruth about it, expecting that she will be impressed with his dedication to the written word.
Ruth expresses that she is pleased that Martin has found his calling, but she does not share in his lofty visions of being a celebrated writer. She sees changes in him that she appreciates, in the way he dresses and expresses himself, but she is still concerned that he is not being realistic about his future. Believing that the road to success is through studying, she encourages Martin to take his secondary school exams, which he fails miserably.
Although this hardly fazes Martin, Ruth is very disappointed by his academic performance. Martin throws himself into his writing, hardly considering it work at all. He has found a way to express himself, all of his thoughts and feelings, and this excites him very much. However, he does not seem to be having any success in getting published or making money through his writing, and Ruth is growing tired of waiting for Martin to accomplish his dreams.
After two years, Ruth tells Martin she can wait no longer. She writes him a letter, explaining that she wishes he had made more of an effort to settle down and make something of himself. Ironically, shortly after Ruth abandons Martin, he begins to be noticed by publishers and magazines that had been snubbing him. He is so jaded from his experiences that he cannot appreciate his newfound success, believing that people do not actually value his work.
At the end of the novel, Martin is driven mad by his own discontentment and commits suicide by drowning.