Rags To Respectability

Category: Literature
Author: Hecate

 Horatio Alger’s character Ragged Dick serves to set a model for young boys who were brought up to achieve the American Dream. This narrative is very optimistic and its hero, Ragged Dick, emerges to be an admirable figure who does not steal, cheat or act dishonorably. In fact, stealing is abhorred in this story and Dick’s decision to act honorably is always shown to bring him good karma of either money or other advantages, as in the bakery episode. This coming of age story shows Ragged Dick’s transformation to Dick Hunter, and then eventually to Richard Hunter. Throughout the book, Dick never looks down on or takes advantage of other less fortunate boot black boys. On the contrary, he encourages them to become better and he even helps them financially. This emphasizes the side of the American Dream that is often misinterpreted, or taken for granted, that is the need to help raise others to our level. Although the American Dream is about individuality, it should not turn into a violent competition. By working hard, being benevolent and aiming for a common welfare and feeling of security, people can reach happiness together; otherwise social relationships will be chaotic and cruel, and thus lead to unhappiness.

 Dick has a lot of boot black friends, who through comparison serve to show the readers what makes Dick stand out among them. For example Dick criticizes Johnny for not being ambitious enough, but Dick is not perfect either, as he is a quick spender and likes to buy expensive cigars and spend his money on theatre, while he could be renting a room somewhere. On the other hand, Dick is very opportunistic, alert and energetic, like the character in Crane’s Self Made Man. All of Dick’s flourishing and improving can be attributed to his one action, and that is when he interfered into Frank and his uncle’s conversation by saying, “I know all about the city, sir; I’ll show him around, if you want me to.” Fosdick who stays in the same room as Dick, is more knowledgeable than Dick, he knows how to read and write, but without Dick’s encouragement he is unable to get into a more respectable job. He is not as confident as Dick is and that is because he used to live with his dad at some point of his life, so he is not as successful at being independent as Dick is.

 The reoccurring mention of Ragged Dick’s appearance and how he had a handsome face that made it easier for people to trust him, reminded me of the importance of appearances in Arthur Miller’s play “The Death of a Salesman”. Also, Dick’s love for jokes reminded me of Willy Loman. To get back to the point of appearances and clothing, it is a reoccurring theme. Dick gets a new suit from Frank’s uncle, and towards the end he gets a new suit from the drowning boy’s father, which is even better than his previous one. In this book, clothing is seen as a method of acceptance in the society. It shows us how people base their judgments on the way people dress. In fact, I think Dick becomes so mesmerized with the way people treat him when he is in a suit that he decides to become more respectable from that point on. With his new appearance he gets access to ways of improvement that a simple boot black would not dream of. He is more respectable, and thus he is listened to and trusted. With his changing appearance, Dick’s wage and social circle also improves for the better.

 One of the messages that this book wants to convey is that we should be good to poor people, as Dick says, “If everybody was like you and your uncle there would be chance for poor people. If I was rich I’d try to help them along”. Dick starts helping others less fortunate than him as soon as he has enough money to rent a room. His definition of richness is having enough to maintain a roof over his head. When the boys whom Dick has helped ask Dick why he is so benevolent and caring, he mentions that he has nobody else to care for. So along with his alertness, Dick’s generous and kind nature also distinguishes him from other boot black boys. This rags to riches, or rather rags to respectability, story also shows the importance of education on the way to self improvement, as Dick says he knows that “there was something more than money needed to win a respectable position in the world”, and that to him was education.