Jack London’s images of women in Martin Eden reflect his protagonist’s shifting, conflicting – even warring – consciousness of class. These images lurch wildly from a false consciousness that places Ruth on an idealized pedestal to a proletarian solidarity that honors women unjustly degraded by hardship and exploitation. Martin extolls Ruth as “pale” every time he thinks of her, in contrast to his horrific portrayals of working-class women as “slatternly,” disfigured “hags.” But the meaning of “pale” in Ruth’s character hovers precariously between purity, absolute beauty and soaring intellectual attainment, and bloodless, deathly, empty disengagement with the gritty splendor of the real world. And the working women, ugly, tainted, and drained as they are, evoke Martin’s respect and compassion, along with outrage at the conditions that crush their inherent beauty and foster vulgarity and ignorance. This contradictory view of women mirrors Martin’s vexed search for his own identity as a man and an artist.
Martin’s all-consuming love for Ruth is grounded in a delusion: the idea, crazily contrary to his keen understanding of middle- and upper-class hypocrisy and intellectual vacuity, that she embodies “intellectual life” and an exalted “beauty, warm and wonderful as he never dreamed it could be” (London 40). She is “a pale, slender spirit, exalted far beyond the flesh,” with the soft hands of someone who “did not have to work for a living,” a precious, unattainable member of the “aristocracy of the people who did not labor.” Ruth is of a different species than Martin’s sister Gertrude, whose hands are “hard from the endless housework” and “swollen and red like boiled beef” from taking in laundry, or Marian, the sister whose “slim, pretty hands were all scarred with the tomato knives” in a cannery, with “the tips of two of her fingers” cut off in a box factory cutting machine (70). Ruth is sheltered, virginal and childlike; to Martin these qualities are inexplicably linked with artistic beauty and lofty intellect, unlike the crude factory girl Margey, who at 15 has “yearning, hungry eyes” and an “ill-fed female form which had been rushed from childhood into a frightened and ferocious maturity” (71).
This pull between contempt and solidarity is evident in Martin’s depictions of predatory male-female relations. In the extended horror show of working-class women that he sets up in contrast to Ruth, barbaric “harpies,” “stamped with degeneracy” prey on sailors (36). But he portrays his sisters as victims, virtual slaves, to husbands that are unremittingly brutal, violent bullies. And he attributes the “hardness” in Lizzie’s eyes to her need for constant vigilance against male predators (145). While Martin pities the haggard, careworn women, he’s tortured by the notion that identifying with the depravity of his own class will inevitably bar him from communion with truth, beauty and art.
But Martin’s love is only sustainable as long as it’s completely compartmentalized, preventing the reality of Ruth from tarnishing his idealized version: “She was all lovable, and what she thought had nothing to do with her lovableness” (156). He perceives the deep cracks in the pedestal he’s constructed for Ruth, but dreads being dragged down and mired in the harsh reality of the working class. The cracks keep widening, however: “He thanked God that she had been born and sheltered to such innocence,” but affirms that that real life contained “greatness in spite of the slime that infested it (168). “Saints in heaven – how could they be anything but fair and pure? No praise to them. But saints in slime – ah, that was the everlasting wonder! That was what made life worth while. To see moral grandeur rising out of cesspools of iniquity; to rise himself and first glimpse beauty, faint and fair, through mud-dripped eyes; to see out of weakness and frailty, and viciousness, and all abysmal brutishness, arising strength, and truth, and high spiritual endowment –“ (168).
This insight is confirmed by Martin’s backbreaking work in the laundry. It’s clear that oppressive labor prevents working people from accessing, participating in, and creating great art. His mind becomes as drained, empty and degraded as that of a previously disdained “slattern” or “hag”: “The house of thought was closed, its windows boarded up, and he was its shadow caretaker” (202-3). For the beaten-down Joe, the one true moment of beauty in his life, the one he recalls constantly, is created by the typhoid that temporarily frees him from endless toil (202). And Martin sees through Ruth’s essential cleanness, fineness and purity when he has to clean up after her kind: “he toiled and suffered over the beautiful things that women wear when they do not have to do their own laundering” (196). But at this point in the novel, Martin remains torn, relentlessly yanked between the beauty of the harsh, real world and the definition of art embodied in his illusory fantasy of Ruth.