American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

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.

John Samson