In his novel Martin Eden, Jack London portrays the struggle of working class life by highlighting the enormous gulf of differences between the working class and the rich. Instead of simply recording Martin’s hard life of labor, London constantly juxtaposes his daily events with the leisurely life of the upper class, specifically with that of his love interest, Ruth.
The contrasts between each socioeconomic class are apparent almost immediately, when Martin awkwardly enters the Morse residence. Even on a physical level, Ruth perceives Martin as lower class due to his appearance: bulging muscles, sunburned skin, a thick neck, a scarred cheek, and rough hands. After all, “strength to her was a gross and brutish thing. Her idea of masculine beauty had always been slender gracefulness” (43).
The disparity between classes becomes even more obvious when Martin learns that Ruth has attended university: “He felt that she had become remoter from him by at least a million miles” (43). Their dialogue only exacerbates this disparity, what with his slang and her proper speech.
When Martin expresses interest in changing his position in life, in becoming a writer and thereby raising his own social status, Ruth explains that he will need an education first. “‘But that takes money,’ he interrupted. ‘Oh!’ she cried. ‘I had not thought of that. But then you have relatives, somebody who could assist you?’ He shook his head” (98). The gap between the rich and poor couldn’t be wider here. Ruth’s ignorance about the struggle of the working class highlights how different their lives are. Her own family paid for her education, and she will probably never have to work a day in her life. Martin, on the other hand, in order to raise his social status, must become an educated man. But in order to learn, he must work to not only pay for said education, but to make a living. There seems to be no time for both; indeed his situation seems helpless.
Eventually, the more he reads and educates himself, he finds himself stuck in that vast gap between the rich and the poor. He realizes that he’s not quite yet a member of the upper class, but he no longer feels like his former, uneducated self. When he goes to do laundry work for Joe, “Martin knew of the enormous gulf between him and this man – the gulf the books had made; but he found no difficulty in crossing back over that gulf. He had lived all his life in the working-class world, and the camaraderie of labor was second nature with him” (187). Moreover, as he eats breakfast and listens to his fellow workers, he becomes conscious of “how far he had traveled from their status” (188).
And yet, even though he doesn’t feel on the same level as the other workers, he clearly isn’t a part of the upper class like Ruth. London outlines the toil of the dehumanizing labor of Martin’s laundry work, while contrasting it with the leisure of the hotel guests – the very people for whom his labor benefits. “It was exhausting work, carried on, hour after hour, at top speed. Out on the verandas of the hotel, men and women, in cool white, sipped iced drinks and kept their circulation down. But in the laundry the air was sizzling” (194). The labor is so grueling, in fact, that his colleague Joe often says that being a hobo or getting sick with typhoid is preferable to their work; at least then one has a break from work and can truly rest.
Martin’s recent passion to become educated and elevate his status in order to be with Ruth is soon nearly destroyed by the hard labor: “All that was god-like in him was blotted out. The spur of ambition was blunted; he had no validity with which to feel the prod of it. He was dead. His soul seemed dead. He was a beast, a work-beast. He saw no beauty in the sunshine sifting down through the green leaves, nor did the azure vault of the sky whisper as of old and hint of cosmic vastness and secrets trembling to disclosure. Life was intolerably dull and stupid, and its taste was bad in his mouth” (198-9). Clearly, the laborious job that Martin takes in order to be able to live, learn, write, and eventually become upwardly mobile enough to be with Ruth is quickly draining him of the drive to do all of those very things he had set out to do.