ragged dick and sister carrie Essay

Submitted By Alex-Williamson
Words: 3620
Pages: 15

The objective of this paper is to explore the depth at which the novels Sister Carrie and Ragged Dick support the view of America as a place which offers the possibility of achieving financial prosperity inclusively. The essay will argue that neither text fully validates this but assert that the historical context of each novel cannot be ignored either. Kirk Curnutt, in an essay published in 2011, coined the phrase ‘national ideology of boundless opportunity’ 1in reference to The Great Gatsby but this paper takes the position that as Curnutt is offering a 21st century analysis of a 20th century text it is too remote from the 19th century novels in question to be used as a panchronic standard. This will be done by comparing the representations of gender and ethnicity between Sister Carrie and Ragged Dick and showing how both novels are very much the product of their time. Secondary material will also be considered, where appropriate. In challenging the question, the essay will draw on Marxist criticism and provide evidence which questions the idea of boundless opportunity and this will be supported by the work of Slavoj Žižek, through whom, the nature of ideology itself will be explored. The essay will then conclude with an overview of the main points raised and, by doing this, will be in a position to provide an answer to the question.
In terms of the contemporary circumstances of America, at the time of Ragged Dick’s publication, it is easy to see how it could be seen as being in a state of flux. The Civil war itself had the effect of causing social fragmentation and there was a need for stability. It is unsurprising that a piece of seemly straightforward literature, our case study, which Harlon Dalton characterises as having the simple message of ‘initiative, hard work, persistence and pluck2 being rewarded with success became enormously popular. In Dalton’s Book, Racial Healing: Confronting the Fear Between Blacks And Whites, he argues that this dominating motif of Alger’s work presents an even playing field in which said success has ‘nothing to do with anything beyond our individual control3. Innate characteristics are of little consequence and every individual has the chance to reach their station in life. The best example of Ragged Dick reflecting such a view can be found in the exchange between Mr Whitney and Dick in which Dick is told:
:remember that your future position depends mainly upon yourself and that it will be as high or low as you choose to make it….4
This can be contrasted with how the novel represents the character of Roswell Crawford. In his job interview, Crawford displays such confidence in the class in to which he was born that he believes it is his strongest quality and even draws attention to it twice5. Whilst it could be argued that this character serves as little more a ‘straw man’, it is significant that he ‘fails’ as it becomes abundantly clear that this resulted from the belief that the inherited ‘capital’ of his social status overrode his poor work ethic. By returning to Dalton, this assumption becomes highly significant. If the onus is placed on the individual in this manner, it must follow that a lack of progression is down to nothing more than a lackadaisical attitude. Not only is this the logic used with Roswell Crawford but the reader seems to be told that this is the reason that Dick’s fellow bootblack Johnny Nolan does not obtain the same income as him with Dick making such ‘helpful’ comments like ‘I get jobs. You’re lazy, that’s what’s the matter6’. Given how his surname invites the reader into identifying him as having Irish ancestry it is tempting to flag this example up as an example of Hibernophobia and work by Nichol Bryan shows us just how common this ethic pigeonholing was with her findings that ‘books and newspapers of the time often pictured the Irish as lazy, violent alcoholics7’. It is however, too easy to autonomously see Nolan through this spectrum…