Recurring Literary Elements in Horatio Alger Novels

June 5, 2019 by Essay Writer

Horatio Alger Jr. was the quintessential class optimist: born to privilege, if not actual wealth, and convinced that poverty could be easily cured with simple hard work, proactivity and good character. The formula didn’t quite work for him personally—he died almost destitute—but during the peak of his fame he published dozens of titles aimed almost exclusively at young male readers. The novels were wildly popular in the late 19th century, where “the American Dream” of a comfortable middle-class life was an extremely marketable cultural meme. Alger’s novels therefore featured young men who, thrust by circumstances into poverty, gradually worked their way into middle-class respectability or beyond despite occasional setbacks. The phrase “Horatio Alger story” became part of the English lexicon partly because of the kind of story for which Alger became famous and partly because of the recurring character types, themes, and plot devices Alger used to illustrate his morality tales. By creating an empowerment fantasy for his readers, he shows that a young man with the right middle-class values can overcome poverty and setbacks even as severe as being an orphan. Alger heroes never receive anything for nothing: such windfalls as they have come from performing heroic or risky deeds in the selfless service of others, and they are small and utilitarian gifts such as a new suit of clothing given by an older mentor whose respect they have earned. Troubled as they are by cowardly rivals or antagonists, Alger heroes are protected by their mentors and offered opportunities for advancement due to their display of integrity and character. They undergo a long period of hard work that is ultimately rewarded by a higher level of economic comfort and security than they had before.

Horatio Alger heroes are almost always teenaged boys—the group of readers to whom his books were targeted. But Alger’s boys are forced by circumstance to assume adult responsibilities early. Lacking an adult protector, the hero must provide for himself. He may also take on a parent role by providing for weaker members of the community. Younger siblings, particularly brothers, are common in Alger families. But even solitary orphans such as Richard Hunter take on and protect younger and more vulnerable boys such as Henry Fosdick, whose interests the hero advances in a parent-like fashion.

Horatio Alger heroes are a little bit larger than life even before they begin their individual rise. They are not necessarily the biggest and strongest boys in the story, but they are always above average in some way. They tend to be braver, stronger, and fitter than their peers. Many outperform wealthier boys their age in rowing contests, foot races, and other contests of skill and athletics. This does not prevent them from being bullied by older, stronger children or by adults. Indeed, antagonism from more powerful people is something every Alger hero experiences at some point of the story. Horatio Alger’s heroes are frequently stolen from, beaten, framed for theft, or cheated out of their rightful inheritance. Frequently the persecution comes from a much stronger, wealthier antagonist. This is a plot device that makes up the primary source of conflict for the hero.

Most Alger heroes are more intelligent than average. Richard Hunter has a talent for snappy comebacks and learns his math and reading quickly when tutored by a younger peer. Harry Walton in Bound to Rise is clever and has a great aptitude for scholarly learning. They also display an attribute commonly known as “pluck”, which is a combination of proactivity, assertiveness, confidence, and courage. However this is not a universal rule. The relatively small, weak Filippo from Phil the Fiddler, for example, is a rare exception. He is not assertive or “plucky” at all: he is terrified and submissive due to the way he is being exploited by his guardians. Over the course of the story he eventually breaks free of them and finds a more loving set of adoptive parents. But most of Alger’s heroes earn economic security by taking on adult responsibilities until they either restore their family’s former good economic status or earn an opportunity to complete their education or work at a job that will eventually provide upward mobility.

Many Alger heroes have a special skill. In Phil the Fiddler and The Young Musician, the heroes Filippo and Philip use their musical skills to provide for themselves. In The Young Acrobat, Kit has a talent for gymnastics. Giving the hero a way to support himself temporarily at an early age allows a young male reader of the same age to imagine himself in a similar role. When faced with adversity, Alger heroes never give up. They are confident in their ability to overcome obstacles, and although they experience setbacks they are not defeated by them. They also possess extraordinary maturity for their age, possibly as a result of their life experiences. This attribute invariably attracts the attention of authority figures who, impressed by the hero’s honesty and sincerity, function as mentors and advisors in ways that advance the plot by creating opportunities for the hero’s advancement.

Regardless of how an Alger hero begins life, he has strong middle-class values and ethics even before he begins his struggle for personal success. The homeless Dick in Ragged Dick, for example, is ashamed of his illiteracy and sloppy handwriting. Unlike most of his peers who live for the moment and who eschew learning, Dick has a strong desire to cultivate middle-class habits such as saving money and educating himself, because he believes these habits will lead to the kind of opportunity and prosperity the middle class enjoys. Exactly why he should believe this is not clear, particularly since so many of his peers continue to spend every cent they earn smoking, eating oyster stew, or watching shows at the Bowery. He definitely wants to move up in life, especially after the brief taste of respect he experiences guiding another young man around New York. But exactly how he knows which habits to cultivate in order to accomplish this is not clear. His work ethic never wavers.

The relatively middle-class behaviors of saving his money in a bank account, renting long-term lodgings, and staying in those lodgings at night to be tutored by Henry Fosdick are completely foreign to Dick, yet Alger presents them as something the character wants and desires. Dick never questions the necessity or practicality of saving, nor is he shown being bored or frustrated by his lessons. He willingly goes to church and Sunday school with the Greyson family. Such an appetite for middle-class values is not normal for someone accustomed to going out every night, yet Dick never feels deprived. This is evidence that, although Dick was born poor, he still has the same values as someone born to the middle class, and believes in the connection between sacrifice and long-term reward even though he does not initially see much evidence of it. Even Dick’s aversion to theft and his penchant for truthfulness are presented as innate virtues as opposed to things Dick may have learned from his surroundings. When he experiences a setback such as being the victim of theft, Dick does not question the validity of his middle-class strategy. Such setbacks as he experiences come either through substantial generosity to others or as a result of other people’s malice. He never—for example—loses patience with the idea of saving and gambles away a day’s pay. Indeed, he displays a maturity and discipline far beyond what could be expected for a boy his age.

Many Alger heroes have a far more plausible reason to believe in the virtues of the middle class, because they were raised in it. They are the sons of inventors, business owners, farmers, or other men with respectable professions. Until their fathers die or disappear, they are raised with normal middle-class ethics. Respect for religion, an aversion to stealing, and truthfulness are things they have been taught from an early age. Indeed, the hero from The Young Musician speaks with outstanding diction and grammar compared to other characters, including those from wealthier families.

In many respects, Alger heroes can be regarded as fish out of water: by entering the middle class, they are finally gaining access to their natural social element. Prior to that, they display their superiority to their peers in a variety of ways. In Bound to Rise, Harry, the son of a poor farmer, is depicted as an avid scholar who was ranked first in the local school despite circumstances that prevented his regular attendance:

He had an ardent thirst for learning, and, young as he was, ranked first in the district school which he attended. I am not about to present my young hero as a marvel of learning, for he was not so. He had improved what opportunities he had enjoyed, but these were very limited. Since he was nine years of age, his schooling had been for the most part limited to eleven weeks in the year. There was a summer as well as a winter school; but in the summer he only attended irregularly, being needed to work at home. [1]

Alger heroes are ambitious. Once they have an appetite for advancement, they are no longer satisfied with the poverty in which they once lived. This produces conflict with their lower-class peers. One of the reasons Dick and Mickey have a rivalry in Ragged Dick and Fame and Fortune is because Mickey resents Dick’s gradual progress toward his goal. Meanwhile, until the transformation is complete and the hero earns a legitimate place on the next rung on the social ladder, he often feels conspicuously uncomfortable around people he perceives to be legitimate members of the class to which he aspires. Dick expresses the feeling as similar to that of “a cat in a strange garret”. [2] The occasional embarrassment or snub directed at the hero from long-time members of higher social classes creates additional motivation to work hard and seek out opportunity and education. This is important, because Alger plots often show the characters progressing through several stages of difficult struggle before they succeed or find the lucky break they need.

None of Alger’s heroes—nearly all of whom are male—have effective parents. Fathers are conspicuously absent. In Ragged Dick, the hero Richard Hunter is an orphan. So is Kit, the hero of The Young Acrobat of the Great North American Circus. In Young Captain Jack, Jack Ruthven has a mother who has been widowed. Maternal characters in Alger novels are almost invariably flat: the mother, if she exists, is incapable of effectively raising children alone due to illness, poverty, or general incompetence. She is frequently in danger from which she lacks the wits to extricate herself, and must be rescued by her adolescent son. In Phil the Fiddler, the hero’s mother is alive but lives overseas in Italy. So she is unable to help him. Missing, sick, or ineffective parents create a feeling of desperation and heighten the dramatic value of what happens to the hero. They also create an opportunity for another stock character—the scheming guardian or authority figure—to harm the hero. Indeed, in The Young Acrobat it is Kit’s father’s death that set the plot events into motion:

Five years before Kit Watson’s father had died. He resembled Kit in appearance, and was very popular in Smyrna. His brother wound up the estate, and had since been living in luxury, but whether the property was his or his nephew’s Kit was unable to tell. He had asked the question occasionally, but his uncle showed a distaste for the subject, and gave evasive replies. [3]

Occasionally an Alger character’s father returns, having been feared dead or lost, and occasionally a character has a happy ending in which someone prominent or respectable is revealed to be the hero’s father. But for the most part the fathers are missing. This is not due to voluntary abandonment of the mother or children—art in Alger’s case did not imitate life—but to illness, military deployment, death, or some kind of disappearance. In Bound to Rise, the main character’s father is poor and well-meaning, but unable to solve his own problems much less to take care of his son. The absence of a father must have resonated with the young readers whose fathers perished in the Civil War, which had barely come to a close when he began writing.

Removing or neutralizing the hero’s parents is not just a cheap ploy to stimulate empathy in the reader. It is also a plot device that explains why the main character is poor through no fault of his own. It provides a rational explanation as to why the hero is poor and in need of advancement. It also makes the character more vulnerable to theft or other forms of attack from antagonists, and it ensures that the character has no relatively easy path into a respectable job or similar opportunity for advancement. Thus, by making sure his heroes have no strong parent figure, Alger creates not just the initial circumstances that begin the plot but also sets the stage for the obstacles the character must overcome over the course of the story.

Alger heroes start out with very little in terms of material resources and must survive off of their own hard work and ingenuity, yet the author frequently includes scenes where the hero gains money, a job, or some kind of advantage as the result of a self-sacrificing act of bravery. This accomplishes two purposes: it displays the character’s courage and inner nobility, and it provides the character a boost and help along his way. The windfall or lucky break never comes from finding money or from winning a bet: Alger heroes must do something in exchange for what they receive. In Ragged Dick, the main character leaps into the Hudson River to save a drowning boy, not aware that the child he is saving is the son of a wealthy man. The grateful father seeks to repay Dick by offering him a better job. Other Alger heroes have attracted the attention of wealthy patrons by rescuing their drowning children, but sometimes the child is in danger due to a fall, possibly in front of a rapidly-moving carriage. In The Young Musician, Philip receives a monetary reward for his part in helping to save Farmer Lovett from a burglar:

What was his amazement when he drew out three bills—two twenties and a ten—fifty dollars in all! There was a slip of paper, on which was written, in pencil: “Don’t hesitate to use this money, if you need it, as you doubtless will. I can spare it as well as not, and shall be glad if it proves of use to one who has done me a great service. JOHN LOVETT.” [4]

The person being rescued, or his father or guardian, rewards the hero materially. Sometimes the reward is money or a job, and sometimes it is a set of clothing that is substantially better than what the hero wears. But the windfall is never enough to take the hero all the way from rags to respectability. Philip receives enough from Farmer Lovett to pay his immediate expenses but it is stolen from him. Later in the novel, after he has developed the necessary survival skills, he rescues the son of a Wall Street broker who has run away from home, and returns the boy to New York. As a reward, he is given an opportunity to earn an education: Mr. Taylor, the grateful father, sends Philip along with the boy he rescued for a full year at a private academy in Connecticut to finish his education.

It is important to note that Alger’s heroes never receive enough of a windfall to ensure they are set for life: they still have to work. Philip Grey, in The Young Musician, receives an opportunity to study and educate himself, but the work is not done for him. Richard Hunter, in Ragged Dick, receives a job that represents the next step up for him on the socioeconomic scale. But he still has to work to earn his keep, and he receives the opportunity only after he has already educated himself to the point where he is competent to do so. Before being offered the work, Richard must provide a sample of his handwriting. Without the months of careful tutoring by Henry Fosdick, Richard would have been unable to qualify.

Horatio Alger uses clothing as a way to illustrate the social class a character occupies. He vividly describes the tattered but outlandish costume of the main character in Ragged Dick, and it serves not only to create a visual depiction of the character but to show the character’s place in the story’s social hierarchy. At the top of Dick’s world are the Greysons, the Rockwells, and other wealthy but self-made businessmen, independently wealthy rural “Squires”, bankers, and their families. Slightly lower are the smaller business owners: tradespeople, farmers, and shopkeepers. Below these are the clerks and employees in shops and offices, who frequently made less money than a boot-black but who still ranked above factory workers, landladies, bartenders, and laborers. These individuals, the working class, are generally adults and are also one social step above the children who black shoes, sell matches or newspapers, and who are frequently homeless.

Nearly all Horatio Alger novels contain what today would be called a “makeover” scene in which the main character has occasion to dress “above” his current socioeconomic class. Sometimes this involves putting on a uniform or costume in the circus; other times clothing is lent or given to the main character. Alger’s point with the clothing is not just to illustrate the extent to which people rely on appearances when interacting with others, particularly young adults. He also shows that the main character’s class aspirations are not bad or unnatural: the character, when properly attired, is treated by strangers as someone who belongs in the nice restaurant or shop. When Dick Hunter gets his first taste of respect in Ragged Dick, it is due in part to the clothing he is wearing. This taste of respect is what kindles the desire to make the change permanent.

As an indication of acceptance by a member of a higher class, Alger heroes frequently receive clothing as part of their reward for helping somebody else. Philip Gray in The Young Musician receives a new set of clothes for finding Henry Taylor and bringing him home; Dick Hunter receives clothing twice. The first time it is part of his payment for escorting a wealthy man’s son around New York. The clothing identifies Dick as a young “swell”, definitely above the level of an ordinary bootblack. His second suit of clothing is a gift he receives after saving Mr. Rockwell’s son from drowning in the Hudson River: “When Dick was dressed in his new suit, he surveyed his figure with pardonable complacency. It was the best he had ever worn, and fitted him as well as if it had been made expressly for him.” [5] He later goes on to work for Mr. Rockwell.

Indeed, one key component of Alger’s stories is the necessity of an older mentor. His heroes are invariably helped, protected, and guided by an older man in the community who has recognized the hero’s inherent worth and potential. Frequently the hero does something unusual to attract the mentor’s attention, such as an unusual display of honesty or courage. The mentor never provides money directly except as payment for services rendered, however he often provides a new set of clothing, a character reference, a work opportunity, or protection when the main character is falsely accused of a crime. In Ragged Dick the hero and his best friend are invited to church and Sunday school by the wealthy Mr. Greyson, who provides Henry Fosdick with the character reference he needs to work in a hat shop instead of blacking boots in the street. In the sequel Fame and Fortune, Mr. Rockwell and his co-worker Mr. Murdock believe in Richard and defend him against a false theft charge.

In some of Alger’s novels, the main character turns around and mentors, provides for, or protects other younger or more vulnerable boys. Dick, for example, receives charity from his first mentor, the affluent Mr. Whitney. Later in the novel, Dick gives five dollars of his savings to Tom Wilkins to feed and shelter his starving family and sickly mother.

It will be remembered that when Mr. Whitney at parting with Dick presented him with five dollars, he told him that he might repay it to some other boy who was struggling upward. Dick thought of this, and it occurred to him that after all he was only paying up an old debt. [6]

Alger characters are generally beset by some kind of cowardly rival who, although bigger and stronger than the hero, does not succeed in permanently inconveniencing him. Mickey, from Ragged Dick, is an older and bigger boy who steals and bullies others until Dick and his employers arrange a better job for him in Fame and Fortune. In that book, the primary antagonist is Mr. Gilbert, a store clerk who works with Richard. Squire Green, the mortgage holder and primary antagonist in Bound to Rise, is a grown man. In Young Captain Jack, St. John Ruthven attempts to cheat the younger and more innocent Jack. So does the guardian of young Kit in The Young Acrobat, who attempts to steal Kit’s inheritance.

Most Alger heroes are the victims of theft by older and stronger men. The villain does not always get his comeuppance, however sometimes a robber or thieving rival is caught and punished as a result of his own failed chicanery. Alger characters very seldom steal except prior to a major moral transformation in which they realize that theft is wrong. This character transformation seldom occurred except in Alger’s later novels. In most of his popular work, Alger presented heroes far more emotionally and morally developed than average. They attract the attention of people of greater power but lesser character, such as the thief Jim Travis who attempts to steal Dick’s money in Ragged Dick.

This James Travis was a bar-tender in a low groggery in Mulberry Street, and had been for a few weeks an inmate of Mrs. Mooney’s lodging-house. He was a coarse-looking fellow who, from his appearance, evidently patronized liberally the liquor he dealt out to others. He occupied a room opposite Dick’s, and was often heard by the two boys reeling upstairs in a state of intoxication, uttering shocking oaths. [7]

Alger heroes are well rounded and believable, with flaws and personality quirks, their rivals and enemies are flat characters that exist only to persecute the hero. They have no redeeming qualities whatsoever: stupid, venial, rough, uncouth, and frequently drunkards, they are the opposite of the cultivated and inspiring men from the upper or middle class who periodically help the hero.

Even though Alger heroes receive lucky breaks, they are punctuated by long periods of hard work that the author compresses. In Ragged Dick, Dick Hunter works and shares a mediocre room with Harry Fosdick for nine full months, earning and saving over a hundred dollars, until he saves Mr. Rockwell’s son and earns a place in the store. This advancement closes out the book, but Dick’s story continues in Fame and Fortune, where Dick gradually accumulates wealth, invests in land, and becomes a partner in Mr. Rockwell’s store at age twenty-one. It is not until the age of twenty-four that he feels himself financially secure enough to propose marriage to Mr. Greyson’s daughter Ida. Accordingly, the entire two-novel process from rags to respectability and from respectability to riches covers seven full years of Dick’s life.

The overall trajectory of Alger’s early novels is fairly predictable. The hero, through no fault of his own, must fend for himself and rely solely on his innate talents at an unusually early age. He has a few lucky breaks, but is the victim of unreasonably vicious enemies who may steal from him, sabotage his opportunities, or cause him to be falsely accused of a crime. However the truth is invariably found out, generally with help from an older male mentor who is impressed by the hero and who ensures he is treated fairly and allowed to succeed or fail based on his own merits. Sometimes the hero becomes a legal authority figure: in Phil the Fiddler, Filippo is adopted by his benefactor. In Mark the Match-Boy, the solvent and successful Richard Hunter takes Mark on as his legal ward. The rest of the time, Alger benefactors might become employers or social references. By the end of the novel, the hero has found a measure of safety and success. He has a safe place to live and a source of food and education. Although he is generally not wealthy, he is experiencing stability and he is free from the enemies who persecuted him earlier in the book. He also has some social connections and assets gleaned from his adventures during the story, which strengthen him and make him more effective.

Although the settings of Alger’s novels vary widely, possibly to satisfy loyal readers’ desire for novelty, the pattern of his books is indeed repetitive due to his near-constant reuse of the specific literary techniques discussed in this essay. Even Phil The Fiddler, a novels described by literary theorist John Geck as “a strong departure from the average Alger work” contains many of the elements common to Alger’s rags-to-respectability novels. Accordingly, to the modern reader, Alger stories are quite predictable due to the similarities between the books. Although his later work reflected an overall increased demand for scenes of violence, peril, and moral turpitude, even Alger’s later works tended to recycle the same literary techniques. He creates a slightly larger-than-life empowerment fantasy for his reader in order to display that a young man who possesses the appropriate middle-class values and virtues can overcome poverty and setbacks, with the occasional lucky break courtesy of a wiser older man. Their success is never instant, however over time their humility, pluck, and work ethic are rewarded with a higher level of economic comfort and security than they had before.


[1] Alger, Horatio. Bound To Rise. A. K. Loring, NY. 1873. Chapter 1.

[2] Alger, Horatio. Ragged Dick. A. K. Loring, NY. 1868. Chapter 17.

[3] Alger, Horatio. The Young Acrobat of the Great North American Circus. Golden Argosy, NY. 1887. Chapter 2.

[4] Alger, Horatio. The Young Musician. Penn Publishing Co., NY. 1890. Chapter 30.

[5] Alger, Horatio. Ragged Dick. A. K. Loring, NY. 1868. Chapter 27.

[6] Alger, Horatio. Ragged Dick. A. K. Loring, NY. 1868. Chapter 13.

[7] Alger, Horatio. Ragged Dick. A. K. Loring, NY. 1868. Chapter 21.


Alger, Horatio. Bound To Rise. A. K. Loring, NY. 1873.

Alger, Horatio. Fame and Fortune. A. K. Loring, NY. 1869.

Alger, Horatio. Mark the Match Boy. A. K. Loring, NY. 1869.

Alger, Horatio. Phil the Fiddler. A. K. Loring, NY. 1879.

Alger, Horatio. Ragged Dick. A. K. Loring, NY. 1868.

Alger, Horatio. The Young Acrobat of the Great North American Circus. Golden Argosy, NY. 1887.

Alger, Horatio. The Young Musician. Penn Publishing Co., NY. 1890.

Alger, Horatio. Young Captain Jack. The Mershon Company, NY. 1901.

Geck, John. Phil the Fiddler; or, The Story of a Young Street Musician: Plot Summary. The Cinderella Bibliography, 2002. Online. Retrieved from

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