Friday, September 14, 2012

Martin Eden by Jack London

An inspirational yet cautionary tale
In reward for an act of good samaritanism, Martin Eden, an uneducated working-class sailor, is invited to dinner at the home of the bourgeois Morse family. Upon first sight of lovely young Ruth Morse, he immediately falls in love with her. Over the course of the evening, Martin becomes enamored with the family’s luxurious home, refined lifestyle, and cultured education, and aspires to raise himself to their level. With the intention of transforming himself into a man worthy of marrying Ruth, he sets upon a rigorous course of self-education. Soon he develops a passion for writing, and resolves to make his fortune as a man of letters.

What follows is the long, arduous journey of Martin’s ascent. His struggles as an aspiring writer are totally captivating; one can’t help but rejoice in his successes and agonize over his failures. The portions of the book devoted to his literary exploits are so engrossing, the romance between Martin and Ruth often seems a cumbersome distraction. Though a realist and radical in his political and philosophical writings, London was often a hopeless romantic and downright puritanical in his depictions of male/female relations. In his works women are often set on pedestals, and no one gets a higher pedestal than Ruth Morse. Even so, as Mr. and Mrs. Morse deliberate over whether Martin is worthy of their daughter, the reader finds himself wondering whether Ruth is really worthy of Martin. Thankfully, as the book progresses and the characters gain a little maturity, the relationship between Martin and Ruth becomes less idyllic and much more firmly grounded in reality. As Martin’s superheroic quest for self-transformation lurches toward fruition, he comes to realize that the result of his metamorphosis is not the paradise he envisioned.

Whether you come to admire Martin or abhor him, this is an exceptionally thought-provoking novel that calls into question the inherent value of social status and intellectual achievement. What begins as a simple boy-meets-girl, rags-to-riches tale gradually progresses into a profound investigation into the complex conflicts of man vs. society, class vs. intellect, artistic integrity vs. exploitation, individualism vs. conformity, and ambition vs. complacency. This semi-autobiographical novel was Jack London’s greatest attempt to break free from the ghetto of adventure fiction to which he was so often undeservedly confined, and to write the sort of philosophical literary novel one might expect from a Dickens or a Balzac. To this end he was extremely successful. Martin Eden is a life-changing read that deserves a place on any bookshelf alongside the great classics of literature.

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