Wednesday, April 27, 2011

997. Martin Eden by Jack London

Rating: 5. Top 10 contender
Read before: New read
Written: 1900s
Edition: The Modern Library New York 2002

Martin Eden, a rough, uneducated sailor from a working class background, struggles to rise above his destitute circumstances through self-education. The main force behind his efforts is his love for Ruth Morse, a member of a bourgeois family, and his desire to be worthy of her. But is becoming bourgeois a worthwhile achievement? Is Ruth Morse actually worthy of his love? And is what he’s working for a dream?

First chapter:
What I got was the two sides to Martin Eden. On the one side he’s commonplace—he’s physically awkward and speaks badly—but this contrasts with his thirst for knowledge and beauty. There’s something admirable in him from the beginning and we see this through Ruth's eyes. He wants to improve himself: “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 going to make it in my class.” (p12).

I wasn’t sure whether I’d like this book, but for the second time this year I found a book I couldn’t put down, a book I’d reread: it was accessible, it was real and I found myself admiring and connected to Eden’s struggle. What I particularly liked was the surface struggle by Eden to be a successful writer and in turn be worthy of Ruth Morse, highlighting the difference between the uncritical, machinelike nature of how “educated” people think versus the difference between education and ability to critically think and analyse.

Martin wanted to be educated for two reasons: he had an innate yearning for more and plus he wanted to win the girl. Both were important but for different reasons.

From the beginning it was clear Martin was more than a rough, uncouth working class sailor. He had potential despite his lack of understanding of art in thinking art painting was a trick: "He stared at what seemed a careless daub of paint, then stepped away. Immediately all the beauty flashed back into the canvas." (p5)

We hear of his yearning from him: "Into his eyes leaped a wistfulness and a yearning as promptly as the yearning leaps into the eyes of a starving man at sight of food. An impulsive strike, with one lurch to right and left of the shoulders, brought him to the table, where he began affectionately handling the books. He glanced at the titles and the authors' names, read fragments of text, caressing the volumes with this eyes and hands ..." (p5) And we hear it from Ruth who sees something special in Eden she shares with us: “The ill-fitting clothes, battered hands, and sunburned face remained; but these seemed the prison-bars through which she saw a great soul looking forth, inarticulate and dumb because of those feeble lips that would not give it speech.” (p24)

But even though this spark to learn and grow is within Eden, meeting Ruth gives him a vision of a woman from another world he wants to be worthy of. Love at first sight: “Never had he seen such a woman.” (p7) “He had met the woman at last—the woman that he had thought little about, not being given to thinking about women, but whom he had expected, in a remote way, he would sometime meet.” (p27) “But as the meet 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 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.” (p28)

At first Eden sees education as indistinguishable from being middle class. He admires them and thinks that becoming educated will result in him becoming one of them and thus win the girl. But Martin’s ultimate success in becoming a “thinking” man makes him neither working class or bourgeois, and one who no longer wants to live according to their maxims or rules. The primary rule he doesn’t want to live in accordance with is the obsession of paid work that comes from both the working class and the bourgeois; Martin’s sister Gertrude talking about her petty tyrant of a husband Bernard Higginbotham says: “Bernard does like to see a man at honest work.” (p348) Martin’s other sister Marian repeats her husband Hermann von Schmidt’s belief that "I think it would be much better if you got a job," she said firmly, and he saw she was sincere.” (p257)

This frustrates Martin because he sees the soul destroying dullness of it: “Get a job! Go to work! Poor, stupid slaves, he thought, while his sister talked. Small wonder the world belonged to the strong. The slaves were obsessed by their own slavery. A job was to them a golden fetich before which they fell down and worshipped.” (p 333) And it was frustrating because he’d also found his own reality; a reality of ideas and analysis and thought he never imagined existed and which found life in his writing: “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.” (p77)

But this isn’t enough for Ruth because it’s not only the working class who demand he gets a job: Ruth, her brother, her father, her mother demand the same thing: “He had read her all that he wrote - poems, stories, essays - "Wiki-Wiki," "The Shame of the Sun," everything. And she had always and consistently urged him to get a job, to go to work - good God! - as if he hadn't been working, robbing sleep, exhausting life, in order to be worthy of her.” (p371)

The true heights of thought came with Eden’s friendship with Brissenden and his introduction to Kreis, Parry, Stevens, Andy, Harry and others. He only meet Brissenden’s friends once but the meeting was an epiphany for him; their ideas fed him and the nature of their conversation gave him hope that being a thinking person was a worthwhile aim: “The books were alive in these men. They talked with fire and enthusiasm, the intellectual stimulant stirring them as he had seen drink and anger stir other men.” (p308)

And what other place to end than the end of the actual novel; and it’s incredibly sad but still great and so wonderfully written. I’m torn about how I feel about it: I’m unhappy that Eden, as an individualist seeking self-improvement through hard work and education, is unable to cope with the ‘success’ he achieves. But I suppose Eden had nothing to live for, despite his success. Despite the constant attention to education it was love, and the love specifically of Ruth, that drove him: "Friends! Gossip! Newspaper misreports! Surely such things are not stronger than love! I can only believe that you never loved me." (p 336) Once Ruth’s broke off their engagement what he cared for most was removed from him, and all he had left was death.

London’s management of Eden’s death was well written; as a man with Eden’s vitality he should have fought the whole way to the end up and he did, it wasn’t a silly or useless death: “His wilful hands and feet began to beat and churn about, spasmodically and feebly. But he had fooled them and the will to live that made them beat and churn. He was too deep down. They could never bring him to the surface”. (p403) Beautiful.

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