MARTIN EDEN (1909). This semiautobiographical novel by Jack London* traces a rough, untutored sailor’s development into an accomplished
writer. Martin Eden’s chance acquaintance with Ruth Morse, a bourgeois
student, motivates him to develop his mind in order to be worthy of her
love. In so doing, Martin comes to realize that he has a talent and originality
far beyond bourgeois conventionality; as he struggles in poverty for recognition as a writer, he becomes increasingly alienated. Therefore, when he
does finally receive acclaim and win the acceptance of Ruth’s family, he can
feel only the hollowness of life and commits suicide.
The sea plays an indirect, albeit significant, role in the novel, almost all
of which is set onshore. Martin does go to sea to get money in order to
continue writing, but London only briefly, at best, outlines the hardships of
the sailor’s existence. At the end London also portrays Martin’s dream of
sailing off to Polynesia to escape the social world, but it is a dream that he
lacks the will or energy to bring to reality. As a symbol of the mindless,
naturalistic struggle that cannot be overcome by romantic dreams, the sea
is an appropriate setting for the novel’s ending, where Martin jumps overboard and drowns. This novel was adapted into film in 1942, starring Glenn Ford.