The use of symbolism has always been a prevalent way for writers to communicate important issues to the public. It is not uncommon to read a simple childrens story and discover underlying political or moral messages, for example, Horatio Algers novel Ragged Dick. This story was written after the Civil War, when America experienced a period of huge industrial growth. The capitalistic work ethic had become a universal idea in the North, and in response the Government agreed to stay out of business affairs, following the industrial policy of "laissez-faire." This widened the gap between the rich and the poor, making it difficult for a less fortunate individual to work his way up in society. Many Americans, however, believed that it was definitely not impossible to become successful in life. Horatio Algers character, Ragged Dick, is a young boot-black who works his way up in society to become a respectable gentleman.
Through symbolism, Alger uses several material objects to reveal Dicks transformation into a successful young man. Dicks new suit is one example of symbolism that Alger uses. It is introduced when Dick offers to be a city guide to young Frank Whitney. The Whitney family is very kind to Dick and they take him into their home to prepare him for a day as Franks tour guide.
After a bath, Dick is given a suit that had once belonged to Frank. The suit was Dicks very first gift and it made him look so different that it was "difficult to imagine that he is the same boy." The Whitney intervention gave Dick the ability to be more than a simple boot-black. Since he now looked like a young gentleman son, Dick received respect and was soon unwilling to wear his old clothes which were ragged, dirty, and ill fitting. Frank Whitney inspired Dick to quit squandering his money and begin saving.
Dick said that he means to "turn over a new leaf." Frank assured him that through honest, hard work, education and perseverance, he could grow up respected and honored. Before Dick left the kind family, Mr. Whitney introduced him to the tradition of the duty of stewardship, which meant that when a man surpassed a certain level of wealth, he must share with those less fortunate. Mr. Whitney passed this on to Dick, along with a five-dollar bill to use wisely. With his newfound money, Dick located a permanent room to rent on Mott Street.
He then deposited the remainder of the money into the bank, for which he received a bank savings book. This book was the second element of symbolism used by Alger in the novel. He now "felt himself a capitalist" and resolved to save every spare cent into his account. From that point on, Dick retired from his old habits of gambling and theater going, as he realized that it was simply a waste of his hard-earned money. He became more aggressive in attaining customers for his boot-blacking business, and found that he could earn the next weeks rent without having to use any of his savings.
During this time, he took in a fellow boot-black named Fos censored , who agreed to tutor Dick instead of paying a share of the rent. Fos censored had gone to school and was more educated than Dick, but Dick was an eager learner, and the two studied every night. Before long, and through much perseverance, he was quickly learning to read and write. The bank savings book had instilled in him a sense of true responsibility and a continuing desire to save his earnings. He knew that an amount saved in a bank would surely be one of the steps on his way to becoming a gentleman, since society judged a man by the amount he saved, not the amount he spent.
Nine months later, Dick had accumulated over one hundred dollars. He came across another young boot-black named Tom Wilkins, who was the third example of Algers symbolism. Upon questioning the boy, Dick discovered that Wilkins mother could not pay her rent. Dick saw in the boy a little of himself, and even though it had been a long while since Dick had been in need, he sympathized with the young boy and resolved to give him the money he needed to pay the rent. This act of kindness symbolized that he had surpassed his former level of wealth, though not much, and was enacting his first duty of stewardship that he had promised to Mr. Whitney.
Helping the young boy gave Dick a "feeling of self-approval which always accompanies a generous and disinterested action." He knew the money was given to a good cause and that because of him, a family would be kept off the street. "Dick was beginning to reap the advance of his self-denial and judicious economy." About a year had passed since Dick was seen as an impoverished, illiterate little boy. One evening Fos censored noticed an advertised letter in the newspaper addressed to the name of "Ragged Dick," and assumed that it referred to his roommate. To obtain this letter, Dick was forced to wear his old clothes, of which he was ashamed, to prove his identity. The letter, was from young Frank Whitney, who he had not heard from since he had left for boarding school nearly a year before.
Frank did not yet know of Dicks transformation, so Fos censored suggested that Dick write Frank a letter. Dick, however, had serious doubts about his writing skills, but he wrote the letter and sent it. The letter was Algers final object of symbolism, and signified that Dick had wholly overcome his hardship and triumphed over the impossible. Dick had accumulated a healthy sum of money, but without a good education to support him as well, Dick would not have been quite as successful.
The writing of the letter showed Dick that he was not the ignorant bot that he had once been, but an educated young man. Alger employed many symbols within the novel Ragged Dick. Each represented Dicks advancement into a higher, more respectable class. The new suit enabled Dick to bridge the social and economic gap that separated the rich from the poor. The bank savings book gave Dick monetary power, and instilled a sense of responsibility.
His gift to Tom Wilkins illustrates Dick using his monetary power for the good of one less fortunate, and also truly proves that Dick has left his destitute life for his new profitable life. Finally, the writing of the letter lets Dick prove to himself that he is self-sufficient. He has money along with education, two essential qualities that are absolutely required to be successful during the Industrial Revolution. Each step was necessary for the advancement of the young gentleman. Success stories were prevalent themes at the time of the novel, and many people read it in hopes that one day they too would become as successful as little Ragged Dick. Bibliography "Ragged Dick", by Horatio Alger.