Once on a ferry Martin Eden, a sailor, twenty years old, defended against a gang of hooligans Arthur Morse, Arthur about the same years as Martin, but belongs to people well-to-do and educated. As a token of gratitude – and at the same time wanting to amuse the family with an eccentric acquaintance – Arthur invites Martin to dinner. The atmosphere of the house – paintings on the walls, a lot of books, playing the piano – fascinates and fascinates Martin. A special impression is made on him by Ruth, Arthur’s sister. She seems to him the embodiment of purity, spirituality, perhaps even of divinity. Martin decides to become worthy of this girl. He goes to the library to join the wisdom available to Ruth, Arthur and the like (and Ruth and her brother study at the university).
Martin – a gifted and profound nature. He enthusiastically immerses himself in the study of literature, language, rules of versification. He often communicates with Ruth, she helps him in his studies. Ruth, a girl with conservative and narrow enough eyes, tries to reshape Martin on the model of the people of her circle, but this is not much she succeeds. Having spent all the money earned in the last voyage, Martin again goes into the sea, having hired a sailor. During the long eight months of sailing Martin “enriched his vocabulary and his mental baggage and better recognized himself.” He feels immense strength and suddenly realizes that he wants to become a writer – first of all, so that Ruth can admire with him the beauty of the world. Returning to Oakland, he wrote an essay on treasure hunters and sent the manuscript to San Francisco Observer. Then he sits down for the story for the youth about the whalers. Having met Ruth, he shares his plans with her, but, unfortunately, the girl does not share his fervent hopes, although she is pleased with the changes taking place with him – Martin became much more correct to express his thoughts, dress better, etc. Ruth is in love with Martin, but her own notion of life does not give her the opportunity to realize this. Ruth believes that Martin needs to study, and he passes the exams to secondary school, but fails miserably in all subjects except grammar. Martin’s failure does not greatly discourage, but Ruth is upset. None of the works of Martin sent to the magazines and newspapers have been published, all return by mail without any explanation. Martin decides: the fact is that they are written by hand. He hires a typewriter and learns to type. Martin works all the time, even without considering this work. “Simply, he found the gift of speech, and all the dreams, all thoughts of the beautiful, which for many years lived in it, poured outward uncontrollable, powerful, ringing flow.”
Martin discovers the books of Herbert Spencer, and this gives him the opportunity to see the world in a new way. Ruth does not share his passion with Spencer. Martin reads her stories to her, and she easily notices their formal flaws, but is not able to see the power and talent with which they are written. Martin does not fit into the framework of bourgeois culture, familiar and native to Ruth. The money earned in swimming ends, and Martin hires in the laundry to iron the laundry. Tense, hellish work exhausts him. He stops reading and once in the day off gets drunk, as in former times. Realizing that such work not only exhausts, but also deafens him, Martin leaves the laundry.
Before the next voyage there are only a few weeks left, and Martin dedicates this vacation of love. He often sees Ruth, they read together, ride bicycles, and one day Ruth finds herself in Martin’s arms. They are explained. Ruth does not know... anything about the physical side of love, but feels Martin’s attraction. Martin is afraid of insulting her purity. At the parents of Ruth, the news of her engagement with Eden is not encouraging.
Martin decides to write for earnings. He takes a tiny room from the Portuguese Maria Silva. Mighty health allows him to sleep for five hours a day. All the rest of the time he works: he writes, teaches unfamiliar words, analyzes the literary devices of various writers, seeks “the principles underlying the phenomenon.” He is not too embarrassed that no one of his lines has been printed so far. “Scripture was for him the final link in a complex mental process, the last knot to which individual scattered thoughts were associated, summing up accumulated facts and positions.”
But the band of bad luck continues, Martin’s money runs out, he pawns his coat, then his watch, then a bicycle. He starves, eating one potato and occasionally lunching with his sister or at Ruth. Suddenly – almost unexpectedly – Martin receives a letter from one fat magazine. The magazine wants to publish his manuscript, but is going to pay five dollars, although, according to the most conservative estimates, would have to pay a hundred. From grief, the weakened Martin becomes ill with a heavy flu. And then the wheel of fortune turns – one by one the checks from the magazines begin to come.
After some time, luck stops. Editors vying to try to cheat Martin. Getting money from them for publications is not an easy task. Ruth insists that Martin get a job with her father, she does not believe that he will become a writer. Accidentally, in Morzov Martin meets Rass Brissenden and closely converges with him. Brissenden is sick with tuberculosis, he is not afraid of death, but passionately loves life in all its manifestations. Brissenden introduces Martin to “real people” obsessed with literature and philosophy. With his new comrade, Martin attends a meeting of socialists, where he argues with the speaker, but thanks to a smart and unquenched reporter he finds himself on the pages of newspapers as a socialist and subversive of the existing system. Newspaper publication leads to sad consequences – Ruth sends Martin a letter, announcing the break in the engagement. Martin continues to live by inertia, and he is not even pleased with the checks coming from the magazines – almost everything written by Martin is now being published. Brissenden commits suicide, and his ephemeral “Ephemeris”, published by Martin, causes a storm of vain criticism and makes Martin rejoice that his friend does not see this.
Martin Eden is finally becoming famous, but it’s all the more indifferent to him. He receives invitations from those people who used to ridicule him and considered him an idler, and sometimes even accept them. He is consoled by the idea of going to the Marquesas Islands and living there in a reed hut. He generously distributes money to his family and people, with whom his fate has tied, but nothing can touch him. Neither the sincere and ardent love of the young worker Lizzy Konolli, nor the unexpected arrival of Ruth, now ready to disregard the rumor and stay with Martin. Martin sails to the islands on the “Mariposa”, and by the time of departure the Pacific Ocean seems to him nothing better than anything else. He understands that there is no way out for him. And after several days of swimming, he slips into the sea through the porthole. To deceive the will to live, he draws air into the lungs and dives to great depths. When all the air runs out, he is no longer able to rise to the surface. He sees a bright, white light and feels that he is flying into a dark abyss, and then the consciousness leaves him forever.