The first question that arises upon opening this book is whether it's autobiographical. Clearly it is, to some degree, even though Martin Eden is presented as a passionate devotee to the philosophy of Herbert Spencer, whose concept of individualism and the inviolability of "natural law" (notably evolution and the survival of the fittest) clash directly with London's (purported) socialist beliefs. The central theme of the starving artist and working class roughneck striving to climb up to what he initially sees as the enlightenment and refinement of the bourgeoisie and later learns to despise -- all of that closely matches London's own life story.
I also found myself wondering whether the book may have been (even if unconsciously) London's self-imposed penance, a sort of apology to the gods of art for having become famous and wealthy by writing a series of commercially successful, lightweight, entertaining stories of questionable artistic merit. Much of the adventure stories and "hackwork" that Martin Eden sends off to magazines would appear to support such a thesis.
Regardless of what may have been London's motivations, the book must be judged primarily on its worth to the reader. There, it scores fairly well in spite of London's habit of saying the same thing over and again, page after page. A bit of judicious editing would have helped, but one must bear in mind that it was published over 100 years ago, at a time when long-windedness was more tolerated than today. The characters are all brilliantly drawn and their personalities, motivations, prejudices, even their self-delusions explored to a degree seldom achieved by even the most skilful writers. Every page glows with authenticity of situation and setting. Martin's life experiences are indisputably based on some of the author's own trials early in his career.
A reader with little patience with philosophical arguments would quickly begin to skip over a number of passages but happily that would not greatly diminish one's satisfaction with the book, since the story moves along alright anyway. Like it or not, Eden's fascination with Spencerian philosophy is an essential aspect of his persona and very much a driving force in his behavior; without that, the story wouldn't make much sense. But there's another entire story here: a deeply troubled love story that is inextricably bound up with the social and philosophical dilemma. One part of the tale could not exist without the other.
In the end, it's a darkly serious piece of work, very much of its time, but it remains highly readable a hundred years later.
This book gave me an understanding of Jack London's character and life choices that I would not have found anywhere as easily. The suicide ending was very annoying to a friend of mine and I agreed then, that a happier ending should result from so much effort, labor and wishes for self-improvement. If the author's choice to go to the South Pacific at the story's close was significant, it probably represents his need to escape a past he preferred then to live without even if only a spiritual or family problem that did not include any law enforcement issue.
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