Martin Eden’s grand dreams of social mobility have thus far, through the first 18 chapters, gone unfulfilled. The fire that motivates his quest is undeniable. The reader can see how Martin has already shed many of the stereotypically working-class facets of his life—his drinking, his attire, his colloquial speech—and even through times of despair and doubt it is clear that his journey is still very much alive. As we get further into the novel, though, we begin to see the costs that Martin faces as a result of his shedding the working life. The fact that he can hold his own in conversations with Ruth and her upper-class peers does not diminish the day-to-day struggles of making ends meet, and in particular the struggles with money and time.
Martin spends every waking hour reading and studying. The more he reads, the more he learns, and the more he learns, the more fascinated and impressed he is with the universe around him. Driven by this need to understand as much as possible in as little time as possible, he strictly regulates his hours of sleep and begins to be selective about what he studies for the sake of maximizing the time he has. Essentially, every door opened by Martin’s newfound passion for discovery leads to another, and Martin’s lament that the hours in the day are too few is based entirely on the academic part of his life.
This is critical because though he strives to be like Ruth, Martin is not her. He has the luxury of her company and her guidance but not of her socioeconomic stature. He goes home at night to the same living conditions that he did before meeting Ruth. His change in attitude and insight has not been matched by a change in income, and so far all of his attempts at profiting from his written work have been met with rejection. Though he rides a steady wave of productivity and self-improvement, he eventually finds that his money runs low, and must remove himself from his quest.
Chapter 16 demonstrates this dual struggle very effectively when Martin tries to study after fourteen-hour-plus days at work. He cannot keep his eyes open and falls asleep each night. The one night that he is meant to be released early disappears when an unexpected workload comes in. He does no reading for the week and admits that he didn’t really want to either. The real tragedy of these scenes is that Martin has no interest in spending time as a laundry boy. In fact, as evidenced by his dismissive attitude toward Mr. Butler and his prestige, Martin really has no interest in money either. He has a vision, one that takes precedent over everything else, and yet the trappings of time and money that are such a predominant force in working life can easily overpower an impassioned will to succeed, no matter how strong the will.