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Martin Eden is a book about love that moves and addresses human deeds. London saw love as a powerful mainspring in the life of a person. In addition, Martin Eden is a social novel as well. It presents food for thought, for understanding the real processes of American life. American press and most of its literature presented the idea of the "American dream," the notion that the road to a successful career is open to everyone. However, if even the talented and the strongest get out of breath and lose their will to live further, what is the fate of an average person? If Martin became a successful writer just by pure coincidence, then how can one say that success is possible for all others? Remember the first version of the title for this novel was “Success,” a word enclosed in quotation marks to reveal the irony.
One prominent Soviet literary scholar of the 1930s, the author of a three-volume History of Western European Literature, F. Schiller, called Martin Eden a pessimist. He also ascribed the disappointments and death of the protagonist to the personal crisis of Jack London. It is hard to agree with such a conclusion. Is the artist, describing the tragic in life, necessarily a pessimist? How is the fact that the writer portrayed his protagonist as being governed by outside circumstances to the tragic end an indication of the writer's personal crisis? No, I believe, that even in this novel London was true to aesthetic principles. It is true, however, that the protagonist did share many of those principles with London himself. Literature that was flooding the market was repulsive to Martin by its lack of life. The beginning writer was inspired by the desire to tell people the truth: to show them what they do not see, to describe something that nobody writes about. "This is life!" — exclaims Martin in response to Ruth's negative opinion about his story. — "It is real. It is true. I must write life as I see it."
As a result, however, financial need forced to Martin to adapt to low literary tastes. London demonstrated how social conditions deformed the soul of the protagonist and, eventually, ruined his life. Many things described in the novel Martin Eden Jack London experienced and suffered for himself. This fact helped make the protagonist's life story and tragedy convincing. Martin embodied London's own ideals and aspirations of his younger years. London clearly saw his character, felt the movements of his soul, and, therefore, was able to show his development with great exactness. Martin Eden marked a new period in London's literary life. There was nothing superfluous in the novel. There was no sense of rush, either, as there was in The Iron Heel. While it was an accident that moved the intrigue and solved the conflicts in A Daughter of the Snows, while Sea-Wolf and Iron Heel lacked the interaction of the protagonist with the outside world, which made the characters look somewhat sketchy, this novel was distinguished by the realistic motivation behind characters' actions, which were deeply rooted in the development of the outside world.
Avoiding any kind of introduction or exposition, which required a certain amount of patience from the reader, London led us into the story immediately, as he did in many of his other stories. The energetic beginning of the novel introduced the readers to the protagonist right away. "The one opened the door with a latch-key and went in, followed by a young fellow who awkwardly removed his cap. He wore rough clothes that smacked of the sea, and he was manifestly out of place in the spacious hall in which he found himself." The reader can easily visualize that simply dressed, awkward guy, who stands in the middle of the hall not knowing what to do with his hat. An olfactory image is added to the visual one; his clothes smelled like the sea. Immediately, the reader is let into the inner thoughts of the protagonist: "He understands: he will not give me away."
Right in the first paragraph, the author painted Martin's verbal portrait and told about his behavior, his feelings, his sufferings and state of confusion. In the same paragraph, we find a quick sketch of his companion, evidently the host of the house, since he has a key to the door. What an abundance of information! The very first lines bring out the sympathy in readers toward the main character—a sincere young man, who found himself in an awkward situation. The reader can't wait to find out who this guy is and why he appeared in that hallway. London did not create this portrait the way it was usually done in novels, where authors stopped the action for the sake of mere description. He sketched the portrait on the way, describing the protagonist in action: "He walked at the other's heels with a swing to his shoulders, and his legs spread unwittingly, as if the level floors were tilting up and sinking down to the heave and lunge of the sea. The wide rooms seemed too narrow for his rolling gait, and to himself he was in terror lest his broad shoulders should collide with the doorways or sweep the bric-a-brac from the low mantel." The writer slightly made fun of his main character, obviously exaggerating distances, conveying the nervousness of the protagonist, whose thoughts jump from one thing to another. London, describing the expression of his eyes that sometimes show an angry spark, compares him to a wild animal afraid of getting into a trap.
At this point, we still do not know the name of the character. We do not know any other details about his appearance — that comes later. The author revealed to us only what would catch the observer's attention at the first glance. He showed us a character in action. This exact fact constitutes naturalness and laconic brevity of the narration. After showing us the character's unfitness for the world in which he found himself at the opening of the book, the author, within just few lines, characterized him further as being sensitive to beauty and having a passion for books. Thus, he provided important qualities to his overall image.
The heroine of the novel appears to be the complete opposite from him: "She was a pale, ethereal creature, with wide, spiritual blue eyes and a wealth of golden hair." Her portrait is given through the admiring eyes of Martin, which allowed the author to characterize both figures at the same time. London described the way Ruth looked in Martin's eyes, what goes on in Martin's mind at that moment, or, for example, how she shakes his hand at their introduction. In his mind, Martin compares her to the women he has met so far: women from his circle and women who lived in the dens, hunting for the sailors. Ruth drastically stood out from the crowd of those "devils incarnated." Martin's memories confirm the authenticity of his conclusion: "She was a spirit, a divinity, a goddess." Consequently, Martin's portrait is given through the eyes of Ruth. The author emphasized those facts to which Ruth pays attention. He particularly focuses on their conversation, which reveals Martin's fascination with her tremendous knowledge and her ability to discuss both literature and art freely. Naturally, Martin concludes that she belongs to the type of women who are worthy of struggle and death. At that moment, desire and upbringing struggle within her. There is no necessity in retelling the entire novel. I just want to note the deep psychological insight of the author, with which he framed the thoughts and feelings of his protagonists.
Jack London caught moments of beginning love between the two characters with great tact and amazing intuition. He described how this feeling develops and how each of them comes to the realization of its existence. Careful observation and authenticity of real-life truth underlie these lines. London comes across as a great artist and an insightful psychologist. An extensive use of simile and hyperbole is characteristic of London's style. For example, Martin almost fainted when Ruth's hair touched his cheek. "He had fainted but once in his life, and he thought he was going to faint again. He could scarcely breathe, and his heart was pounding the blood up into his throat and suffocating him." It was comparable to the sun coming down from the sky. Such comparisons emphasized the romantic nature of the characters' feelings.
Describing pictures in his mind, as well as the portraits of characters and their actions, London found the necessary words to present his ideas clearly. His language, full of imagery, was expressive. As an example of London's sparing and exact style, I would like to bring to your attention the last passage of the novel—near the conclusion of Martin Eden. There is no trace of false prettiness, catchy simile, or hyperbole. The composition of the novel is carefully balanced. Following the tradition, it has its culmination point (the moment when Ruth rejects Martin and when Brissenden commits suicide) and its outcome. After the culmination comes the crash of all illusions held by the protagonist. This process is contrasted with the simultaneous rise of his fame. Structuring this novel, London stripped away all "extra" information. In this manner, he omitted the description of Martin's travels. If we keep in mind that he was writing the novel during his "Snark" voyage, we would easily understand how difficult it must have been for the author not to give sea descriptions of any sort. They would have certainly slowed down the development of the story.
The structure of Martin Eden can be called symmetrical. It created a sense of specific completeness and of the resolution of the existing problems. Martin first made his appearance to the reader as a sailor and, at the end he felt a desire to return to the world of sailors. The poet Swinburne, whose book he found in the beginning of the novel in the Morse house, turned him to the idea of a suicide in the final part of the work. Ruth, extolled in the first parts of the novel was disgraced at the end, while belittled Lizzie Connolly was exalted. People who once despised Martin, in the finishing chapters invited him for dinner, vying against one another to seek his favor. The publishers who formerly rejected his manuscripts, later fought for them, contending for the honor of being the first ones to claim they had discovered Martin's talent.
London's novel, initially received rather coldly by American critics, grew in favor and popularity with time. In Russia, it remains one of his most famous books. "This book reflects the experience of American intellectual life for the last half of the nineteenth century, from Emerson and early Melville to Howells and Dreiser," wrote American scholar Sam Baskett of Martin Eden. However, readers' response to the novel was contradictory, paradoxical even. The paradox was in the fact that instead of warning people, it became for many a call for action, a blessing for a fight. In spite of all obstacles and reversals of fate, thanks to his mind, determination, and will, Martin achieved his goal and became a successful writer. The suicide did not count; it was his voluntary action. The prototype, Jack London himself, was a vivid example of a distinctive victory over the hostile, unfriendly fate. The book was written with thorough knowledge of the subject matter. Clearly, it was London's path, his way through suffering. Martin's life was interpreted by some as a conduct manual, a self-instruction handbook, if you will, especially by those who had the capacity and the desire to pursue a literary career. Hoping to avoid his mistakes, they used the positive experience of this self-taught guy in their life. "In almost every country of the world," remarked London's biographer Irving Stone, "I met authors, who confided that they owed their impetus and original strength to become book writers from reading Martin Eden and other of Jack London's compelling novels."
Those who knew Vasily Shukshin say that he frequently mentioned Jack London in literary conversations with his friends, particularly in discussions about the novel Martin Eden. Shukshin didn't simply read Martin Eden; he studied it. Those who researched the life and work of this Russian writer noted many subtle similarities between Martin Eden and Shukshin, who took London's book as his conduct manual. "Imitation, following Martin Eden's example, inevitably led to the development of a strong will and forced him to a strict, even ascetic, way of life," noted V. Korobov. "Martin Eden gave him a lot of insight into the concept of true literature and its goals. Also, it gave him understanding of how, where, and in what way he should be looking for his own path in life and whose experience in the literary field he should consider." Critics are convinced that Shukshin sought, like Martin Eden, "an impassioned realism, shot through with human aspiration and faith. What he wanted was life as it was, with all its spirit-groping and soul-reaching left in." I will cite the confession of another famous Russian prose writer in whose literary career Martin Eden has played a big part. This is what Valentin Pikul said about Jack London: "I love him for creating an image of a strong type of human being. Our literature needs a strong character of London's type, which is a person unafraid of obstacles. We do not have such a hero, but we surely need one. We need a strong, willful character, who knows what he wants and achieves exactly what he needs."
Copyright © 2004 by Vil M. Bykov