Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Martin Eden

Martin Eden
© 1908 Jack London
381 pages

For its first two thirds, Martin Eden is a uplifting tale of art and romance about a man of humble means who hauls himself up to a better station in life in pursuit of a woman, discovering his own soul in the process. This inspiring story turns quickly to tragedy, however, when it reveals how quickly and utterly lost a soul can be when disappearing on the heights of achievement, boasting about its own success.

Martin  Eden is a working-class sailor, positively rippling with masculine virility and sharply intelligent.  When he saves the life of a soft, pampered Oakland scion named Arthur Morse, he's invited to dinner by him in gratitude. Arthur warns his family that he's bringing home a wild man, but his sister Ruth is positively undone by Martin's sheer presence. He, too, is wowed by her; while he embodies everything wild, masculine, and rough, she embodies (very prettily) everything civilized, feminine, classy, and tender. The two worship one another within their own minds, but he realizes she is as far above his grasp as the angels, unless he can learn to talk as her family talks, and about the same subjects they deem fit: art, literature, and philosophy. Armed with curiosity, will, and the ability to master any subject through independent study, Martin submits to Ruth's desire to civilize him. But Ruth unwittingly creates a monster: drunk with love, idealism, and the thought of becoming a great author, Eden abandons all but study and art. The book records his quest of self-cultivation through study, self-expression through his struggling writer's career, and ultimately, self-aggrandizement. It is the latter that turns this story of accomplishment into tragedy, for Martin's triumph is achieved only by the loss of everything  within him worthwhile.

Martin Eden bears a close resemblance to Wolf Larsen, the fearful beast-man antagonist of The Sea Wolf, who like Eden was a self-taught intellectual master, but simultaneously a physical titan.  Both hold themselves to the ideal of the Nietzschean superman, the man shackled by nothing -- no chains on their thoughts, their bodies, or their hearts.  They were to be men without limit, who conquered the world before them and recognized no law save that of the wild: kill or be killed, triumph or perish. While Wolf Larsen was countered by a soft professor who became a 'man in full', full of wild strength but tempering it with civilized morality,  Martin encounters no worthy adversary. Having rejecting all, he is without anything, and though having achieved his goal he feels no joy in it  he is left with nothing but bitter loneliness, the kind of deep-seated alienation that leads inevitably downward.  I found it profoundly depressing, and imagine this to be London's goal; Martin is a tragic figure, almost Lucifer-like in his fall , and the greatest sadness is that he never recognizes that he  has done himself a disservice in embracing the philosophy of the Self over all.  Martin Eden has beautiful prose, and inspired characters, but the cautionary tale has such a harrowing ending that it almost prompts regret in having read it, thought nothing so thought-provoking and insightful should be ignored.

The Sea Wolf, Jack London
The Pearl, John Steinbeck


  1. I read 'Call of the Wild' decades ago and a few of his short stories which stuck with me for quite a while. He does seem an author that is more than a little unusual. I need to check him out a bit more. After all I am trying to be a reader of quality rather than simple quantity..... [grin]

  2. Call of the Wild was the first London work I ever read -- the first proper book I ever read, come to think of it. I always knew him for outdoor/adventure type writing until a few years ago when I learned some of his writing was born out of leftist politics. "The Iron Heel" is probably the most obvious, but I'm told "People of the Abyss" is kin to Orwell's "Down and Out in Paris and London" or "Wigan Pier". I intend on reading more of him as well, because I've only begun to explore his works. I've never read "White Fang", which besides "Call of the Wild" is his most-known work now. I suspect the philosophically interesting or politically suspect works, like "Iron Heel" or "The Sea Wolf", have been shoved aside for marketing reasons..

  3. sc said: I suspect the philosophically interesting or politically suspect works, like "Iron Heel" or "The Sea Wolf", have been shoved aside for marketing reasons..

    Indeed - which makes them *much* more interesting to me!


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