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B+ : simplistic but compelling
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The complete review's Review:
Martin Eden begins with its eponymous protagonist at age: "Twenty -- almost twenty-one".
He's already experienced a great deal -- "I've taken care of myself since I was eleven" --, and seen much of the world, having traveled widely as a seaman, a lifestyle he has comfortably slipped into -- complete with the heavy drinking, rough language, and physical exertion (including all the fighting) that seems to go with it.
He is a fine physical specimen, muscle-bound and good-looking, easily attracting women, but he is also raw -- "untamed, wild".
He comes from a working class family, the youngest of a whole bunch of brothers, and two now-married sisters, his parents long dead; he's only had a little schooling.
Here was intellectual life, he thought, and here was beauty, warm and wonderful as he had never dreamed it could be. He forgot himself and stared at her with hungry eyes. Here was something to live for, to win to, to fight for -- ay, and die for. The books were true.Ay .....
It's instantly clear to him: his rough working-class life and ways won't do; he wants this kind of refinement, he wants to better himself -- and to win over the girl, which he realizes he can not do until he has acquired much greater knowledge and much greater polish. But he's determined, from that moment on. As he tells Ruth:
Excuse me, miss, for buttin' in that way. I guess the real facts is that I don't know nothin' much about such things. It ain't in my class. But I'm goin' to make it in my classRuth doesn't exactly take him on as a project, but she gladly offers advice, such as that he must improve his grammar (London has him jabbering very roughly at the outset). Already quite a bookworm, Martin mainly turns to books for answers, reading whatever he can get his hands on -- going so far as to take out library-memberships in the name of his sisters, too, so that he can take out more books. He's determined to catch up, to transform himself, to pull himself out of a working-class life that revolves around physical labor into an intellectual sphere. He sees that he's: "weighted down by the incubus of his working-class station" and it's clear to him that he must find a way out.
The Morse-household presents a model of what to aspire to:
He wasn't of their tribe, and he couldn't talk their lingo, was the way he put it to himself. He couldn't fake being their kind. The masquerade would fail, and besides, masquerade was foreign to his nature. There was no room in him for sham or artifice. Whatever happened, he must be real. He couldn't talk their talk just yet, though in time he would. Upon that he was resolved.And, if anything, Martin is determined. He is physically powerful, but he also has great willpower -- and: "He was by nature powerful of thought and sensibility, and the creative spirit was restive and urgent". It is a struggle from the first, but he is doggedly tenacious, devoting himself completely to personal transformation.
Money remains an issue: he must work to get enough to live on and so, for example, he has to interrupt his home-schooling to go off seafaring again, traveling to the South Sea. He continued to read and study on the trip -- and it's here, too, that he figures out how he will make it in this world, and break into Ruth's:
And then, in splendor and glory, came the great idea. He would write. He would be one of the eyes through which the world saw, one of the ears through which it heard, one of the hearts through which it felt. He would write -- everything -- poetry and prose, fiction and description, and plays like Shakespeare. There was career and the way to win to Ruth. The men of literature were the world's giants, and he conceived them to be far finer than the Mr. Butlers who earned thirty thousand a year and could be Supreme Court justices if they wanted to.Poor, poor misguided Martin .....
Once he's set his mind on it, he's locked in, and nothing can shake his confidence that, ultimately, he will succeed. He has some self-awareness, recognizing what he does not want to do (hard physical labor, as when he works in a laundry) as well as what he is not suited for ("As for business, I shall never succeed at it. I am not in sympathy with it. It strikes me as dull, and stupid, and mercenary, and tricky. Anyway I am not adapted for it. I'd never get beyond a clerkship"), but as far as writing goes, it's pure determination on his part: he's convinced himself it's his way out (and up, and to Ruth), and he won't let anything stand in his way.
Writing isn't a problem -- Martin can churn the words out easily enough -- but success proves more elusive. Martin is unfamiliar with the ways of publishing -- and unimpressed by them once he gets a feel for them:
"But his chief trouble was that he did not know any editors or writers. And not merely did he not know any writers, but he did not know anybody who had ever attempted to write. There was nobody to tell him, to hint to him, to give him the least word of advice. He began to doubt that editors were real men. They seemed cogs in a machine. That was what it was, a machine. He poured his soul into stories, articles, and poems, and intrusted them to the machine.When he has difficulty placing his more literary efforts, he's willing to try a different tack:
I am going to move to Grub Street. I shall leave masterpieces alone and do hack-work -- jokes, paragraphs, feature articles, humorous verse, and society verse -- all the rot for which there seems so much demand. Then there are the newspaper syndicates, and the newspaper short-story syndicates, and the syndicates for the Sunday supplements. I can go ahead and hammer out the stuff they want, and earn the equivalent of a good salary by it.He'll try anything, and he does: Martin Eden is long a chronicle of the indefatigable aspiring writer who simply can't catch a real break. There is a constant going back and forth to the pawn shop, as his fortunes rise (slightly) and then collapse again -- keeping him from Ruth, at times, because he only has the one good suit, and daren't show himself at the Morse's while it's at the pawn shop.
Martin's real problem is that he is doing all this for Ruth, and to be worthy of her. It's a problem for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that she is not worthy.
He's completely besotted:
Long ago I wanted to be famous. I care very little for fame now. What I want is you; I am more hungry for you than for food, or clothing, or recognition. I have a dream of laying my head on your breast and sleeping an aeon or so, and the dream will come true ere another year is gone.He's blinded, too, not realizing that Ruth, though she knows how to hold herself and act in society, isn't much more than a mediocrity: "she was not original, not creative, and all manifestations of culture on her part were but harpings of the harpings of others". She comes to feel, and then to fall for him, but she proves small-minded, incapable of seeing Martin's so much larger dream. She can only see him in terms of her own very limited bourgeois world-view -- confident that he can escape his class and become an appropriate partner for her, but not that he could enter spheres -- such as of artistic accomplishment -- that are beyond her own real understanding:
His desire to write was, after all, a little weakness which he would grow out of in time. Then he would devote himself to the more serious affairs of life. And he would succeed, too. She knew that. He was so strong that he could not fail -- if only he would drop writing.Martin is not broken by her lack of belief in him and what he seeks to do and prove; ironically, he is only finally broken by achieving everything he set out to do (as a writer), when: "Money poured in on him, fame poured in on him; he flashed, comet-like, through the world of literature".
Ruth's parents initially saw him as a useful influence on their daughter, who had reached her mid-twenties without showing much interest in having a beau or settling down in marriage yet. They saw the fine masculine specimen Martin as a sort of stepping-stone -- the kind of man Ruth knew better than to get too closely involved with, but who might whet her appetite for serious romance, with a man of an appropriate background. They miscalculated, of course, as Ruth unexpectedly found herself falling for him; the two even get engaged, over her parent's objections -- but when what they choose to see as Martin's true (working-class-type-)colors are revealed, in a comic-confusion of incidents, the engagement is broken off.
Martin has pursued, single-mindedly, his escape from not just working-class life, but working-class being, honestly wanting to better himself -- and working himself to the bone to achieve it. He is guided by the certainty that:
Down below where he lived was the ignoble, and he wanted to purge himself of the ignoble that had soiled all his days, and to rise to that sublimated realm where dwelt the upper classes.Of course, what he finds when he has it all is how hollow that world, too, is. So, for example, the Morses come crawling back, eager now to hitch their daughter to the successful man.
Martin's disappointment when reaching the heights he had so long learned for is very well presented in the book's quick final chapters. A particularly nice touch is that the now so in-demand Martin can place all the stories and articles that previously had been so often rejected over the years. He makes a fortune off his newfound good fortune:
Editors wrote to him telling him to name his own terms, which he did, but it was always for work performed. He refused resolutely to pledge himself to any new thing. The thought of again setting pen to paper maddened him.For years, he had done little more than write whenever he could -- long all more or less for naught --, but once he's broken through he abandons writing. Seeing what success was, he sees no more purpose in it. (Not that that stops him from cashing in on everything he had produced until that point.)
Martin Eden is, in many ways, fairly simplistic, from Martin's Eliza Doolittle-like transformation to his tunnel-vision-devotion to succeeding as a writer, but the narrative is easily sustained by London capturing so well the fever-pitch at which Martin pursues his goals.
Martin is a larger-than-life figure, with London repeatedly also pointing out how muscle-bound he is and showing off his strength, with quite a few fights thrown into the mix. The raw, animal physicality is also what gets to Ruth -- nicely described by London:
She had come back to his side, and she saw him double his arm at the elbow, the biceps crawling under his shirt-sleeve and swelling into a knot of muscle, heavy and hard. The sight repelled her. Sentimentally, she disliked it. But her pulse, her blood, every fibre of her, loved it and yearned for it, and, in the old, inexplicable way, she leaned toward him, not away from him. And in the moment that followed, when he crushed her in his arms, the brain of her, concerned with the superficial aspects of life, was in revolt; while the heart of her, the woman of her, concerned with life itself, exulted triumphantly. It was in moments like this that she felt to the uttermost the greatness of her love for Martin, for it was almost a swoon of delight to her to feel his strong arms about her, holding her tightly, hurting her with the grip of their fervor. At such moments she found justification for her treason to her standards, for her violation of her own high ideals, and, most of all, for her tacit disobedience to her mother and father. They did not want her to marry this man. It shocked them that she should love him. It shocked her, too, sometimes, when she was apart from him, a cool and reasoning creature. With him, she loved him -- in truth, at times a vexed and worried love; but love it was, a love that was stronger than she.Some of the novel verges on the cartoonish, and much has the feel of a YA-novel -- not least in how generous Martin is with his money once he has more than he needs. Ruth is a problematic figure, in that it's hard to see how Martin could not come to realize how mediocre she is much earlier; he is willing to do anything for her but readers already see early on that she is not worthy of his efforts, and thus its hard to be invested in this romance. (The more intriguing figure is Lizzie Connolly, completely smitten by Martin as well, and ultimately a more appropriate potential romantic partner.)
Few novels are as consistently energetic as Martin Eden is; like Martin himself, the narrative is practically unflagging, at the highest pitch. If some of what happens, and how it is presented, seems too simplistic or broadly-drawn, it is nevertheless a thoroughly engaging read. Martin is long a too-good-to-be-true figure, and his determination is truly remarkable -- readers constantly wonder what might break him, and yet nothing does -- but ultimately only really a success in London's sharp turn of a conclusion. As he -- this man who has always simply forged ahead, with all of his considerable might -- explains to Lizzie:
Something has gone out of me. I have always been unafraid of life, but I never dreamed of being sated with life. Life has so filled me that I am empty of any desire for anything. If there were room, I should want you, now.It's a beautifully sad final turn that concludes the novel, a striking contrast to all that came before -- with London's writing reaching the necessary heights, as he does at a variety of other exceptional points in the novel too, to pull it off.
As a young reader, Martin had believed: "The books were true", and he comes to find all the meaning he could wish for in them, both in reading and then writing them (if for the wrong reason -- Ruth). But ultimately Martin Eden is a novel of disillusionment: the real-world practices of publishing should be Martin's first clue that the books maybe weren't that true, but when that's not enough it's the real world itself that reveals itself for all its hollow vacuity. And, as Martin comes to realize, even escaping to the South Seas -- the ultimate fantasy get-away to an unspoiled paradise -- won't change the sad fact that the books weren't true after all.
- M.A.Orthofer, 17 August 2021
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American author Jack London lived 1876 to 1916.
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