Ragged Dick to Rich Richard: Could it Happen to Me?

According to the Oxford Dictionary (ironic I know), the American Dream is the “ideal by which equality of opportunity is available to any American, allowing the highest aspirations and goals to be achieved.” There have been several interpretations of what the American Dream really constitutes, and one of those imaginings comes in the form of Horatio Alger’s novel: “Ragged Dick.” This was an easy enough book to get through and comprehend. It wasn’t dense like a textbook nor was it riddled with complicated facts and figures. It even had some drawings. What made it difficult for me to understand was the lack of obstacles and hardships that the protagonist, Richard (“Dick”), went through to achieve his idea of the success (or the American Dream): financial stability/comfort and becoming respectable. Although it’s true that he is an orphan who initially lives alone without a permanent address, this part of his background doesn’t come up in any way that negatively influences his behavior or outlook on life. As I myself am not an orphaned bootblack living in the streets of New York, I wouldn’t truly know how this would affect a man. However, I have an inkling that this fact about his life may sometimes bring down his relatively optimistic outlook. We never had a scene in the novel that included Richard cursing his luck or situation or even pondering his life. This made me think that perhaps Richard isn’t very self-aware? I know that it wouldn’t be healthy to dwell on the bad for a long time, but I think it would make Richard a bit more relatable and sympathetic if he displayed some kind of “damaged” emotion.

Some may argue that Richard does have some notable character flaws. It’s true that he may play some tricks on people from time to time, he initially spends his money on frivolous things as soon as he earns it, and he doesn’t have a very impressive array of academic abilities. However, his resolution to be honest, his kindness with his money displayed by him purchasing meals for less fortunate boys, and his reliable street smarts (and later his determination to become more “book smart”) all counteract these flaws. It isn’t as though I want Richard to be a terrible human being; I just wish that I could have seen a more troubled character who doesn’t always do the morally correct thing. Alger firmly established that stealing is strictly against Richard’s ethical code, but I think that it would have been more realistic and interesting to hear some internal conflict play out in Richard’s head in several situations. For example, when Richard regained a young man’s fifty dollars from a thief, it never even crosses his mind how beneficial that money would be in his own hands. He could have rationalized taking the money for himself by thinking that this action would teach the young man to be more responsible in the future. Nevertheless, Richard did the morally-conscious thing without a second thought.

I feel as though Alger would want my main takeaway from this novel to be something along the lines of: if you work hard and you’re a good person, you can achieve your dreams. Sadly, my main takeaway is instead that an author should not include some sob story as background if he does not take the time to examine how it has impacted the protagonist’s mentality and actions going forward. I feel as though the deaths of Richard’s parents and the fact that he has been on his own since he was seven years old were just dropped into the story to emphasize how amazing Richard’s progression toward wealth and respectability is. I believe that Richard’s progression would have been even more impressive if he had battled temptation along the way. Richard’s failure to recognize temptation made the novel seem very childlike and idealistic as opposed to an authentic portrayal of the American Dream. I don’t mean to pour so much contempt out onto this novel. It’s an entertaining story, but my preference would be that it included a more multidimensional protagonist. I would be interested to see Richard experience further substantial setbacks combined with how they would affect his disposition and ability to achieve success.


1 thought on “Ragged Dick to Rich Richard: Could it Happen to Me?”

  • There might be another interpretation of Dick’s (initial) situation: Maybe he didn’t stress more about being homeless and having to work each day to be able to eat, because that was a pretty ordinary thing for people in U.S. cities in the 19th Century. How do you think that being homeless or food insecure would affect one’s ability to be successful in college today? Is that a problem? Are there students at UMW in that situation?

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