Martin Eden

Martin Eden
Martin Eden  
1st edition
Author(s) Jack London
Country  United States
Language English
Genre(s) Novel, Künstlerroman
Publisher Macmillan
Publication date 1909
Media type Print (Hardcover)

Martin Eden (1909) is a novel by American author Jack London, about a proletarian young autodidact struggling to become a writer. It was first serialized in the Pacific Monthly magazine from September 1908 to September 1909, and subsequently published in book form by Macmillan in September 1909.

This book is a favorite among writers, who relate to Martin Eden's speculation that when he mailed off a manuscript, 'there was no human editor at the other end, but a mere cunning arrangement of cogs that changed the manuscript from one envelope to another and stuck on the stamps,' returning it automatically with a rejection slip.[citation needed] The central theme of Martin Eden's developing artistic sensibilities puts the novel in tradition of the Künstlerroman genre, in which is narrated the formation and development of an artist.[1][2][3]

While some readers believe there is some resemblance between them, an important difference between Jack London and Martin Eden is that Martin Eden rejects socialism (attacking it as 'slave morality'), and relies on a Nietzschean individualism. In a note to Upton Sinclair, Jack 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."


Plot summary

Living in Oakland at the dawn of the 20th century, Martin Eden struggles to rise far above his destitute proletarian circumstances through an intense and passionate pursuit of self-education in order to achieve a coveted place among the literary elite. The main driving force behind Martin Eden's efforts is his love for Ruth Morse. Because Eden is a rough, uneducated sailor from a working class background,[4] and the Morses are a bourgeois family, a union between them would be impossible until he reaches their level of wealth and perceived cultural, intellectual refinement.

Just before the literary establishment discovers Eden’s talents as a writer and lavishes him with the fame and fortune that he had incessantly promised Ruth (for the last two years) would come, she loses her patience and rejects him in a wistful letter: "if only you had settled down...and attempted to make something of yourself." When the publishers and the bourgeois—the very ones who shunned him—are finally at his feet, Martin has already begrudged them and become jaded by unrequited toil and love. Instead of enjoying his success, Eden retreats into a quiet indifference, only interrupted to mentally rail against the genteelness of bourgeois society or to donate his new wealth to working class friends and family.

The novel ends with Martin Eden committing suicide by drowning, a detail which undoubtedly contributed to what researcher Clarice Stasz calls the 'biographical myth' that Jack London's own death was a suicide.

Joan London noted that "ignoring its tragic ending," the book is often regarded as "a 'success' story...which inspired not only a whole generation of young writers but other different fields who, without aid or encouragement, attained their objectives through great struggle."[citation needed]

Main characters

Martin Eden

A former sailor from a working class background who falls in love with a young bourgeois woman and decides to educate himself at becoming a writer, so he can win her hand in marriage.

Ruth Morse

The young bourgeois woman attending university who captivates Eden while tutoring him in English. Though she is initially both attracted and repelled by his working class background, she eventually decides that she loves him. The two become engaged but not without condition: they cannot marry until her parents approve of his financial and social status.

Lizzie Connolly

The cannery worker who is rejected by Eden, who is already in love with Ruth. Initially, when Martin strives to attain education and to reach to the "higher-culture", in his mind, Lizzie's rough hands mark her out as inferior to Ruth. Despite this, Lizzie remains devoted to Eden. He feels an attachment to her because she loves him for who he is, and not for the fame or money (unlike Ruth). Lizzie loved him from the beginning before he was rich and famous and trying to better himself.

Joe Dawson

Eden's boss at the laundry, who wins Eden over with his cheeriness and capacity for work, but lacks any ambition for self-improvement.

Russ Brissenden

Eden's sickly writer counterpart, who encourages Eden to give up writing and return to the sea before city life swallows him up. A committed socialist, he introduces Eden to a group of amateur philosophers he calls the 'real dirt'. Brissenden’s final work—'Ephemera'—causes a literary sensation when Eden breaks his word and publishes it upon the writer's death.

Major themes

Social Class

Social class—and Eden's perceptions of it—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. Spurred on by his love for Ruth Morse, he embarks on a program of self-education, with the aim of becoming a renowned writer and winning Ruth's hand in marriage. As his education progresses, Eden finds himself increasingly distanced from his working class background and surroundings. Notably, he is repelled by the hands of Lizzie Connolly, who works in a cannery. Eventually, when Eden finds that his education has far surpassed that of the bourgeoisie he looked up to, he finds himself more isolated than ever. Paul Berman observes that Eden’s inability to reconcile his "past and present" versions—"a wealthy Martin of the present who is civilized and clean, and a proletarian Martin of the past who is a fistfighting barbarian"—causes his descent into a delirious ambivalence.[5]


Aside from the machines that toughened Lizzie Connolly's hands, Jack London conjures-up a series of allusions to the workings of machinery in the novel. Machinery eats up people, vitality and creativity. To Eden, the magazine editors operated a machine which sent out seemingly endless rejection slips. When Eden works in a laundry with Joe, he works with machines but feels himself to be a cog in a larger machine. Similarly, Eden's Blickensdorfer typewriter gradually becomes an extension of his body. When he finally achieves literary success, Eden sets up his friends with machinery of their own, and Lizzie tells him "Something's wrong with your think-machine."

Individualism Versus Socialism

Although Jack London was a socialist, he invested the semi-autobiographical character of Martin Eden with a strong dose of individualism. Eden comes from a working class background, but he seeks self-improvement, rather than an improvement for his class as a whole. Quoting Friedrich Nietzsche and Herbert Spencer, he rejects the 'slave morality' of socialism, even at socialist meetings. However, London was keen to stress that it was this individualism that eventually led to Eden's suicide. He described the novel as a parable of a man who had to die "not because of his lack of faith in God, but because of his lack of faith in men."


When Jack London wrote Martin Eden at age 33, he had already achieved international acclaim with The Call of the Wild, The Sea-Wolf and White Fang. However, London quickly became disillusioned with his fame and set sail through the South Pacific on a self-designed ketch called the Snark. On the grueling two-year voyage—as he struggled with tiredness and bowel diseases—he wrote Martin Eden, filling its pages with his frustrations, adolescent gangfights and struggles for artistic recognition. The character of Ruth Morse was modelled on Mabel Applegarth — the first love of London's life.

The character Brissenden is modeled on London's real life friend/ writing inspiration George Sterling [6] . With the plot central posthumously successful poem Ephemera , being based on Sterling's seminal work A Wine of Wizardry.


~ His mood was essentially religious. He was humble and meek, filled with self-disparagement and abasement. In such frame of mind sinners come to the penitent form. He was convicted of sin. But as the meek and lowly at the penitent form catch splendid glimpses of their future lordly existence, so did he catch similar glimpses of the state he would gain to by possessing her. But this possession of her was dim and nebulous and totally different from possession as he had known it. Ambition soared on mad wings, and he saw himself climbing the heights with her, sharing thoughts with her, pleasuring in beautiful and noble things with her.

~ Martin Eden, with blood still crawling from contact with his brother-in-law, felt his way along the unlighted back hall and entered his room, a tiny cubbyhole with space for a bed, a wash-stand, and one chair. Mr. Higginbotham was too thrifty to keep a servant when his wife could do the work. Besides, the servant’s room enabled them to take in two boarders instead of one. Martin placed the Swinburne and Browning on the chair, took off his coat, and sat down on the bed. A screeching of asthmatic springs greeted the weight of his body, but he did not notice them. He started to take off his shoes, but fell to staring at the white plaster wall opposite him, broken by long streaks of dirty brown where rain had leaked through the roof. On this befouled background visions began to flow and burn. He forgot his shoes and stared long, till his lips began to move and he murmured, “Ruth.”

~ It was the rejection slips that completed the horrible machinelikeness of the process. These slips were printed in stereotyped forms and he had received hundreds of them—as many as a dozen or more on each of his earlier manuscripts. If he had received one line, one personal line, along with one rejection of all his rejections, he would have been cheered. But not one editor had given that proof of existence. And he could conclude only that there were no warm human men at the other end, only mere cogs, well oiled and running beautifully in the machine.

~ But there was little time in which to marvel. All Martin’s consciousness was concentrated in the work. Ceaselessly active, head and hand, an intelligent machine, all that constituted him a man was devoted to furnishing that intelligence. There was no room in his brain for the universe and its mighty problems. All the broad and spacious corridors of his mind were closed and hermetically sealed. The echoing chamber of his soul was a narrow room, a conning tower, whence were directed his arm and shoulder muscles, his ten nimble fingers, and the swift-moving iron along its steaming path in broad, sweeping strokes, just so many strokes and no more, just so far with each stroke and not a fraction of an inch farther, rushing along interminable sleeves, sides, backs, and tails, and tossing the finished shirts, without rumpling, upon the receiving frame. And even as his hurrying soul tossed, it was reaching for another shirt. This went on, hour after hour, while outside all the world swooned under the overhead California sun. But there was no swooning in that superheated room. The cool guests on the verandas needed clean linen.

~ What did love have to do with Ruth’s divergent views on art, right conduct, the French Revolution, or equal suffrage? They were mental processes, but love was beyond reason; it was superrational. He could not belittle love. He worshipped it. Love lay on the mountain-tops beyond the valley-land of reason. It was a sublimates condition of existence, the topmost peak of living, and it came rarely. Thanks to the school of scientific philosophers he favored, he knew the biological significance of love; but by a refined process of the same scientific reasoning he reached the conclusion that the human organism achieved its highest purpose in love, that love must not be questioned, but must be accepted as the highest guerdon of life. Thus, he considered the lover blessed over all creatures, and it was a delight to him to think of “God’s own mad lover,” rising above the things of earth, above wealth and judgment, public opinion and applause, rising above life itself and “dying on a kiss.”

~ “Nietzsche was right. I won’t take the time to tell you who Nietzsche was, but he was right. The world belongs to the strong—to the strong who are noble as well and who do not wallow in the swine-trough of trade and exchange. The world belongs to the true nobleman, to the great blond beasts, to the noncompromisers, to the ‘yes-sayers.’ And they will eat you up, you socialists—who are afraid of socialism and who think yourselves individualists. Your slave-morality of the meek and lowly will never save you.—Oh, it’s all Greek, I know, and I won’t bother you any more with it. But remember one thing. There aren’t half a dozen individualists in Oakland, but Martin Eden is one of them.”

~ He looked again at the open port. Swinburne had furnished the key. Life was ill, or, rather, it had become ill—an unbearable thing. “That dead men rise up never!” That line stirred him with a profound feeling of gratitude. It was the one beneficent thing in the universe. When life became an aching weariness, death was ready to soothe away to everlasting sleep. But what was he waiting for? It was time to go.

~ "But that character, that Wiki-Wiki, why do you make him talk so roughly? Surely it will offend your readers, and surely that is why the editors are justified in refusing your work."

"Because the real Wiki-Wiki would have talked that way."
"But it is not good taste."
"It is life," he replied bluntly. "It is real. It is true. And I must write life as I see it."

~ "There was a long rumble of sound, and it seemed to him that he was falling down a vast and interminable stairway. And somewhere at the bottom he fell into darkness. That much he knew. He had fallen into darkness. And at the instant he knew, he ceased to know."

~ Describing the poem by Brissenden, Ephemera as ""It was a long poem of six or seven hundred lines, and it was a fantastic, amazing, unearthly thing. It was terrific, impossible; and yet there it was, scrawled in black ink across the sheets of paper. It dealt with man and his soul-gropings in their ultimate terms, plumbing the abysses of space for the testimony of the remotest suns and rainbow spectrums. It was a mad orgy of imagination, wassailing in the skull of a dying man.".

Allusions to Martin Eden in other works

In Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin, Pnin asks for the novel Martin Eden in a bookstore, describing it as "a celebrated work by the celebrated American writer Jack London," but no one has heard of it and they only had a copy of The Son of the Wolf. To which Pnin comments "Strange! The vicissitudes of celebrity! In Russia, I remember, everybody—little children, full-grown people, doctors, advocates—everybody read and re-read him."[7]

Martin Eden is alluded to is the Tom Waits song titled "Shiver Me Timbers" from the album The Heart of Saturday Night. The lyric says, "I know Martin Eden gonna be a-proud of me".

See also


  1. ^ Sam S. Baskett (1976) Martin Eden: Jack London's Poem of the Mind, in Modern Fiction Studies, 22 (1976), pp. 23–36
  2. ^ James Burrill Angell (2006) Martin Eden and the Education of Henry Adams: The Advent of Existentialism in American Literature, p.69
  3. ^ Earle Labor, Jeanne Campbell Reesman (1994) Jack London p.76 quotation:

    Martin Eden is part of a literary tradition that includes such classics as Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, Melville's Pierre, Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, DH Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, and Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel.

  4. ^ ch. 5, 7, 8
  5. ^ Berman, P. "Introduction" Martin Eden (2002): xv. New York: Random House.
  6. ^ Hicks, J et al. "The Literature of California: Writings from the Golden State" (2000): xv. University of California Press.
  7. ^ Pnin, Chapter Four, section 6

External links

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