Living in Oakland at the beginning of the 20th century, Martin Eden struggles to rise above his destitute, proletarian circumstances through an intense and passionate pursuit of self-education, hoping to achieve a place among the literary elite. His principal motivation is his love for Ruth Morse. Because Eden is a rough, uneducated sailor from a working-class background and the Morses are a bourgeois family, a union between them would be impossible unless and until he reached their level of wealth and refinement.
Eden represents writers' frustration with publishers by speculating that when he mails off a manuscript, a "cunning arrangement of cogs" immediately puts it in a new envelope and returns it automatically with a rejection slip. The central theme of Eden's developing artistic sensibilities places the novel in the tradition of the Künstlerroman, in which is narrated the formation and development of an artist.