Abstract

Published between Jack London’s sea novels, The Sea-Wolf (1904) and The Mutiny of the Elsinore (1913), the autobiographically-inspired novel Martin Eden (1909) is not set at sea—with the exception of Martin’s suicide in the last chapter. Perhaps since the novel is primarily set on land, the importance of the sea to the artistic identity of London and his character Martin have generally been overlooked. The novel is flooded with language and imagery of the sea. The sea colors Martin’s imagination, the narrator makes frequent use of nautical metaphors, and the conventions of maritime literature inform the overall structure of the novel. Martin Eden reflects the sea’s influence on London, who was an avid reader of maritime literature and a seasoned sailor. London had sailed in San Francisco Bay in his youth as an oyster pirate and member of the California Fish Patrol, and as a young man on a sealing expedition aboard the Sophia Sutherland, an adventure that provided raw material for The Sea-Wolf. Martin Eden was composed at sea, begun during London’s voyage to the South Seas on his fifty-seven-foot ketch the Snark with his wife Charmian, and completed on the Mariposa, the steamship that transported the Londons back to Tahiti where they had left the Snark during a business trip to San Francisco. The sea is as integral to Martin’s character as it is for London’s self-identity. Thus by reading Martin Eden as a novel of the sea, we can better understand London’s social and aesthetic navigation of romance and realism, in a work both influenced by and contributing to the maritime literary tradition.

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