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62 pages 2 hours read

Jack London

Martin Eden

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1909

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Symbols & Motifs

Hands

Content Warning: This section refers to depression and death by suicide.

An emphasis on hands is a common motif throughout Martin Eden. Typically, characters’ hands reflect their station in life: The bourgeoisie have smooth, soft hands, while the working class have hands that are rough and scarred by labor. For example, during his first evening at the Morse house, Martin is struck by the softness and delicate beauty of Ruth’s hands. To have perfect hands is a luxury. Ruth hasn’t been exposed to the degradation of physical labor. Working women, in contrast, bear physical markers of their hard lives. Martin tries to explain this idea to Ruth, stating, “When one’s body is young, it is very pliable, and hard work will mould it like putty according to the nature of the work” (101). Although he’s referring to the effect of labor on the entire body, hands are among the most used and most visible parts of the body and thus among the most evident markers of one’s class and trade. For example, Martin can tell at a glance that Lizzie has worked at a cannery because of the particular scars on her hand. His sister, Marian, “worked in the cannery the preceding summer, and her slim, pretty hands were all scarred with the tomato-knives.

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