whltowhl, December 19, 2008 (view all comments by whltowhl)
Martin Eden, a cautionary tale indeed. Also a story of mind over matter, even over life itself. The previous review discusses ME's struggles, but neglects the story's raw beauty and historical settings. Martin attacks his writing/studies with ferocity; he overcomes tremendous difficulties -- his belonging to what he calls "the real dirt," the impoverished working class; periods of exhaustion and near starvation; ostracization; lack of belief in and support for his goal of becoming a mind to be reckoned with.
Publication, wealth and fame, however prove void of merit and joy. What once was real to Eden -- his early life of fighting, working, sailing -- he cannot return to; yet he invisions returning to a South Sea island and buying a farm there. But this last dream has no savor; indeed he finds no meaning in life. And herein, it seems, lies the so-called theme or meaning of the story. Obsession with success of any kind (literary, industrial, monetary . . ) slowly kills the instinct to live -- to create meaningful connections, to love, to accept the gift of life without violence to self or others; to find meaning in life itself. But Martin has been chasing illusions. Even writing has no meaning, and he vows never again to lift a pen.
The events of the final pages seem a fitting end for Martin Eden. By sheer will power he had depleted himself. He no longer hears the siren call of his island paradise.
For more on this theme, see London's The Sun Dog Trail, a great short tale of obsession/revenge, with winter's unforgetable ravages and a sled dog ride into frigid Alaskan wastelands.
Nolivienne, June 15, 2007 (view all comments by Nolivienne)
Having read the book myself, I disagree with those who regard it an inspiring tale of personal triumph. To be sure, the book dramatizes the gut-wrenching, heart-wringing struggle of the protagonist, Martin Eden, to reinvent himself, through self-study, into a versatile writer of repute with a view to making himself worthy not only of his fianc?e, Ruth Morse, but also of the bourgeois society to which she belongs and in which he seeks to gain membership despite his humble origins. But the book, as anyone who has read it conscientiously knows, ends on a tragic note: Martin Eden?s suicide at the height of his success can?t simply be discounted. Shouldn?t this ending then provoke one into asking whether or not the book is truly the inspirational narrative that it is popularly regarded to be?
I believe it should.
In my view, the book is a cautionary tale of transcendence gone awry. How so? Martin Eden?s tenacity of purpose is predicated on his a priori conviction that his fianc?e and the bourgeoisie can value his intrinsic worth as an individual of potential. But alas! Much to his profound disillusionment, he discovers later on that his fianc?e and the bourgeoisie have no appreciation at all (and can never have any) for what he is and what he?s willing himself to be. Only when Fame and Fortune have already smiled on him are they prepared to regard him well ? and only superficially so at that. In other words, Martin Eden realizes he is wrong in believing they can value him on his own terms, not on theirs; only his extrinsic worth as an individual of attainment matters to them, and like it or not, that?s all he can ever expect of them.
That the force of realization is strong enough to dissipate his passion for living is hardly surprising. He has inadvertently foredoomed himself by obsessively seeking genuine affirmation from the people of the ?wrong? sort. It can?t be otherwise especially in view of his rigid sense of self-consistency, which prevents him from accepting the way things are and amending himself accordingly. Whether or not his suicide then is an act of lunacy, cowardice, or plain weakness, one thing is certain: it is arguably an act of repudiation like Kate Chopin?s tragic heroine Edna Pontellier?s in the Awakening. Their suicides, which coincidentally involved entombing themselves in watery graves, could be said to constitute the ultimate statement of defiance against their societies that have given them much sorrow.
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