Jack London’s ‘Martin Eden’ / The Development of the Existential Hero
Jack London’s ‘Martin Eden’: The Development of the Existential Hero
In the following essay, published in 1970, Spinner discusses the autobiographical novel Martin Eden, which he regards as one of the first bleakly existentialist anti-hero novels in American literature.
by Jonathan Harold Spinner (essay date 1970) November 20, 2019
Martin Eden is one of the first novels that documents the disintegration of the American success story, the final collapse of the Horatio Alger legend, the great fall of the Gospel of Wealth myth. Yet it also marks one of the first scenes in a new American drama, that of the existential dilemma of the modem anti-hero. If the book is seen only as a final chapter in the annals of the American success story, then it seems to be two separate, distinct, and unintegrated halves, with Martin Eden’s behavior after becoming a successful novelist seemingly inexplicable. But by considering the novel as presenting some of the opening lines of the modem existential problem, Martin Eden becomes a complete and solid piece of work, and an enduring American novel.
The Horatio Alger-Gospel of Wealth myth was the American statement to the world. The last quarter of the 19th century was imbued with it. the literature of the time is flooded with it. London’s novel, written in the opening years of the 20th century appears, in its first chapters, to be yet another reflection of that guiding beacon of American thought. Martin Eden fully intends to succeed. The American dream of success is his dream of success, (pp. 114-15)
Eden, like any other young American, knows that through hard work, he will emerge victorious. Yet it is Eden’s misfortune and folly, from the viewpoint of the traditional American dream, that he has chosen a course fraught with introspective penis, that of writing. Nor does Eden limit himself to magazine editing, or newspaper work, his ambition is fine writing and the rarified atmosphere of the mind. It is this attempt by Eden that leads him from the narrow, sure channels of the American dream to the broad, uncertain depths of the existential dilemma. One wonders if London realizes that Eden’s introspectiveness is self-destructive. I doubt that he does, however, because of the parallelism in London’s own life. As I intend to show, an unconscious thread of introspection as an avenue of death for those not strong enough to accept the discoveries that it presents, runs throughout the novel. But 1 believe it to be unconscious and unknown to London.
The modem existential dilemma, that overworked phrase, can be defined as the loss of identity, the feeling of alienation, the lack of faith so well-documented in so much of modem literature. . . . Although the existential dilemma was hidden for three-quarters of a century in America behind the twin facades of the westering myth and the Horatio Alger legend, the myths of escape and success, Martin Eden breaks through as one of the first fictional statements of American existentialism.
Eden is the perfect name for an American Adamic hero who falls after eating of the Tree of Knowledge. If Eden is Adam, then his Eve is Ruth Morse, who bids him eat of the forbidden fruit of introspective self-awareness. Satan, if he does not whisper in Ruth’s ear, speaks to her heart in more direct ways. Ruth sees Martin as a full-blooded, lower class, sexual Minotaur, with his “heavy corded, almost bull-like (neck), bronzed by the sun, spilling over with rugged health and strength.” And although Ruth considers Eden’s strength “gross and brutish,” she is surely and steadily drawn to his phallic power. Freud would have been delighted.
It is ironic that the fragile, innocent Ruth Morse should tempt Eden, yet the apple she offers is, like Eve’s, forbidden to Eden and so much desired. From his humble, lower-working class viewpoint, the bourgeois world-view is all encompassing and grand. Yet Eden does not accept Ruth’s, or the middle class’ view of obtaining wealth. From the first, he is intrigued by bourgeois education and knowledge, and not by the material goods that they possess. He intends to get that education and knowledge, for the middle class students in school with him, although physically his inferiors, could talk Ruth’s “talk—the thought depressed him. But what was a brain for? . . . What they had done, he could do.”
Thus far we have all the beginnings of an Horatio Alger story, a poor-boy-makes-good theme. Yet Eden has taken a fatal turn, for instead of turning outward toward the wealth and position of a Mr. Butler, he turns inward the bitter loss of faith of a Mr. Brissenden. We cannot carry the comparison of Brissenden and Eden too far, for Eden has been tempered in different fires, yet the comparison exists. Both are artists, both are disillusioned, and both are destroyed by the society and the intellectual climate that surrounds them. Both, as strong as they appear, are brittle, although both have been through much Brissenden has been through sickness, through tuberculosis. Eden has been through Cheese Face and the laundry.
The Cheese Face and the laundry episodes are the most powerful in the novel. They have similar qualities, and are, indeed, extremely similar experiences. They are hard physical experiences, and Eden survives them both because of his endurance and ability to withstand physical pain. Yet as toughening as these experiences are. they do not prepare Eden for the mental toughness that the new industrial-scientific-existential age demands. It is interesting to note that Eden recalls the Cheese Face incident when he is at the bottom, when rejection slip after rejection slip has totally defeated him for the moment, when the Horatio Alger myth has been shattered, when long, hard work has brought no reward. It is then that he recalls his greatest triumph, it is then that he reminds himself that he can withstand any physical pain. After his reminiscent dream, he tells himself that he will succeed. However, there is a note of uncertainty in it, as though Eden realizes that this is a different battle he is in because as he tells himself, “You can’t stop here. You’ve got to go on. It’s to a finish, you know.”
Similarly, the laundry is another test of Eden’s physical endurance. Again his mind is overwhelmed by the physical, and as he fought like a brute against Cheese Face, so he works and lives like an animal in the laundry. As in the Cheese Face incident. Eden’s mind, his introspective tool, is shattered. It is impossible for Eden to work like an animal and think on a high level at the same time. Physically. Eden is fairly well up to it, mentally he is destroyed by it After three months of working at the laundry during the week, and bicycling to San Francisco to see Ruth on the weekends, Eden gets drunk with his partner Joe. “He forgot, and lived again, and living, he saw … the beast he was making of himself—not by the drink, but by the work.” As he drunkenly realizes, it was not by being a “toil-beast” that he could succeed. This was the whiskey’s message. “The whiskey was wise. It told secrets on itself.”
Thus, on both occasions, it is work, hard work, that brings on a mental shattering in Eden. For Eden. Horatio Alger is proven wrong, hard work does not lead to success, but to death, a spiritual and intellectual one. These are premonitions of the stresses that Eden will soon face, they are indications of what Eden lacks, mental toughness. They are turning points in the book, because they both denote the destruction of the Horatio Alger myth, and the development of the existential dilemma that Eden is soon faced with. These two incidents are the links in the novel between the two opposite philosophical statements. If Eden cannot cope with Horatio Alger, how will he be able to cope with Jean Paul Sartre?
It is precisely because of Eden’s introspection, the natural result of his profession, that the events of the second half of the novel occur. By some editorial miracle, totally unexplainable by either Eden. London, or ourselves, Eden’s work becomes, suddenly, acceptable, and he becomes rich, famous, wanted. It would appear that Horatio Alger was right all along, success comes with hard work. Yet for Eden, material success has the taste of ashes, because it is based on “work performed.” As he tells the Morses and their middle class friends at dinner, it is because he now has money and is famous that they dote on him, and not because “I’m Martin Eden, a pretty good guy and not particularly a fool . . . And it was all done long ago; it was work performed, . . . when you spat upon me as the dirt under your feet.” (pp. 115-17)
Eden refuses to be objectivized, to be made an “it” by others, us all of us tend to do to people. He will not be “pigeonholed” as an artist, he wants to be taken as a man. Yet what truly crushes Eden, what really shows his lack of emotional strength, and reveals the depth of his existential problem, is Brissenden’s death. . . .
Neither Brissenden nor Eden have the mental strength required by an existential age of the introspective writer. They both search desperately for answers, they are both overwhelmed by the thought of man as little more than nothing in the chaos of the universe. . . . Introspection has reinforced their knowledge, gained by first-hand physical experience, of man’s nothingness, physically and spiritually. . . .
There are other signs throughout the novel that Eden is heading toward a dilemma of existence, a problem of alienation. Loneliness is a continuously stated problem for Eden throughout the book. Because he is entranced and possessed by the fruit of the middle class, know ledge. Eden breaks off relations with the lower class, his first paradise. He finds the lower class too coarse, ill-mannered, and stupid, at first, to remain with them. Even after hi* disillusionment with the middle-class, he finds it impossible to return to the lower class, to find a woman like Lizzie Connolly satisfying and fulfilling. He recognizes her virtues and her beauty, but he is too far alienated from her surroundings to stay with her. Eden realizes he is not a brute and i* “a damn poor Nietzscheman.” that he would marry Lizzie if he could “and fill her quivering heart full of happiness ” But Martin Eden cannot, “and it’s a damn shame.” (p. 118)
Eden s relationship with Ruth is indicative of his whole relationship with middle class society. Ruth, an ironical name to give to a woman who is far from ready or willing to go wherever Eden would lead her, is at once afraid and drawn to Eden, primarily for the same reasons American “polite” society is both drawn to and afraid of him—his vitality and power are repulsive, yet magnetic to the middle class. Eden realizes this and refuses to be used. Now he finds the bourgeois “sickening,” and realizes that what he dreamed in his innocence, “that the persons who sat in the high places, who lived in fine houses and had educations and bank accounts, were worthwhile,” is the great lie of the Horatio Alger success story.
He moves toward the socialists, the labor unions, the radicals, but because he is already alone, because he is already divorced from two classes, he cannot accept their theories. His star is the hero, the Nietzschian superman, and socialism, while fine for the mob, is not for Martin Eden. With Brissenden’s suicide, he is truly alone, alienated, the classic existential anti-hero in the classic existential dilemma. It is then that he longs for paradise again, to which he can never return, the paradise he knew as a poor sailor in Tahiti There, he and Moti, the chief’s son, wait for “the rush of a big breaker whereon to jump the reef.” Eden relives those thrilling moments of breakthrough, of fierce physical enjoyment, of youthful pleasures, of agrarian order so that he can escape from the “disorder of his squalid room,” from the disorder of his existential dilemma in the modem industrial world.
Eden has gone from order to disorder, from paradise to hell, from being at one with the universe to alienation from it and from his fellow man. The “Moti” dream is an aspect and outgrowth of the westering myth of escape It is then that he attempts to return to the South Seas, to go west, to escape from his existential reality. But suicide can be spiritual as well as physical. Eden attempts death through myth, through dream, and perhaps, realizing this on a subconscious level, kills himself physically on route to his spiritual death. Because, as we have seen, he lacks the necessary mental toughness to survive in this existential world, Eden cannot face the loss of paradise to which his introspectiveness has led him. Suicide, from this desert of emotions, from this spiritual hell, becomes a positive act for Eden. He conquers the absurd natural order by imposing his human will on it, forcing himself to death, (p 119)
Martin Eden is a rude shock to a literature overwhelmed with the Horatio Alger-Gospel of Wealth myth I find no other American novel of the era is so hopeless, so empty, so awful in its view of man as this one is. Long before the terminology came into existence, London had written an existential novel, had given America one of its first existential anti-heroes. Like Eden just before his death, one sees in this novel a terrible vision of self-know ledge, of self-awareness for America in the 20th century. . . . (p. 120)
Source: Jonathan Harold Spinner, “Jack London’s ‘Martin Eden : The Development of the Existential Hero,” in Jack London: Essays in Criticism, edited by Ray Wilson Ownbey, Peregrine Smith, Inc., 1978, pp. 114-20.