Martin Eden: The Use of Metaphor as a Weapon

Martin Eden is regarded as one of the most original and vital characters that the writer Jack London ever created. The name Martin Eden is taken as the title of London’s book, that was composed in the early years of -the 20th century, which is semi-autobiographical and set in San Francisco.

It is the tale of an eponymous seaman, who is impoverished and is pursuing, aggressively and obsessively, his dreams of learning and literary success. London himself was born into a family suffering hard times. He also went to sea and spent some time in San Francisco himself.

It is not surprising therefore that London floods his novel with the sea’s imagery and language. With the ocean coloring Martin Eden’s imagination, the book’s narration makes generous use of nautical metaphor. Indeed maritime literature’s conventions inform the novel’s overall structure. The words and descriptions in Martin Eden are a reflection of the sea’s impact on the book’s author, himself an experienced sailor and insatiable reader of the literature of the sea.

The author wanted the book to be an assault on the uniqueness of individuals and an attack on ambition. To help him in this exercise the book uses metaphor throughout. For example, with metaphor, London represents the frustration of writers with publishers in Eden’s speculation that when he sends off a manuscript, it is a “cunning arrangement of cogs” that is immediately set in motion to put his writing into a new envelope to be returned automatically, accompanied by a rejection slip.

London also uses race as a metaphor for identity, masculinity and class position. It underlies not only the novel’s problem of class but also Martin’s sense of identity itself, and, more than that, his evolution of an identity as an author.

The race is something of a shadow value in Martin Eden, but it is always present, from the endless references to whiteness, skin color, darkness and the binaries between Martin, darkened and marginalized by his work and class, and the white upper world of power and success into which he wishes to pass.

Throughout the book, a wide variety of animals are given different natures to describe different people. In one example Martin Eden says:

  • “The Transcontinental crowd were nanny-goats, except you fellow are an assortment of prize-fighters.” Here London uses “nanny-goats” to paint a picture of cowards.”London employs another, particularly acute animal metaphor to underline Eden’s sadness. It goes:
  • “Dogs dead to the world in the sun over and over again whined and bark, but they were not competent to tell what they saying that ended them whine in addition to yap. He had often wonder what it is. And that be all he was, a dog sleeping in the sun. He saw gracious and good-looking visions, but he possibly will only whine plus bark at Ruth. “

In this passage, London is perhaps positing that all of us are like dogs sleeping under the sun. Like Martin Eden, we have a lot to say but few of us manage to get ourselves properly heard.

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