Rags to Riches, An American Tale

Rags to Riches is a popular narrative trope that revolves around a protagonist‘s journey from a position of poverty, adversity, or humble beginnings to achieving wealth, success, or a higher social status. This narrative arc typically involves hard work and determination. And often a stroke of good luck or a transformative event that propels the protagonist to prosperity.

Throughout American literature, film, and popular culture, the Rags to Riches theme has been repeatedly portrayed as a manifestation of the American Dream. Characters like Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” and Rocky Balboa in the “Rocky” film series embody the pursuit of success and the American Dream.

The trope also aligns with the belief in social mobility, the idea that individuals can move up the social ladder and improve their economic standing through their efforts. This concept has been historically integral to the perception of the United States as a land of opportunity and a place where individuals can make their dreams come true. Hence, the trope is closely connected to the American Dream and how the United States is perceived as a land of opportunity and upward mobility.

The American Dream is a deeply ingrained cultural belief that anyone, regardless of their social background or circumstances of birth, can achieve success, prosperity, and a better life through hard work, determination, and merit.

Historical Context and Horatio Alger Jr.:

One of its earliest and most influential proponents was the American author Horatio Alger Jr., known for his series of novels in the 19th century that featured young boys overcoming challenges and rising from poverty to success through their virtues and industriousness. Alger’s works, such as “Ragged Dick” and “Strive and Succeed,” became iconic examples of the Rags to Riches theme.

The narrative reflects and reinforces the ideals of the American Dream by showcasing stories of individuals who start from humble beginnings, face significant challenges, and eventually achieve wealth and success. These stories often emphasize the values of self-reliance, perseverance, and personal responsibility, which are central to the American Dream. In fact, it resonates with the American psyche so much that it transcended literature and became music.

The classic song “Rags to Riches,” popularized by Tony Bennett, is an emblematic example of the trope in music. The lyrics tell the story of a protagonist who has “nothing but rags” but finds love, leading to a transformation and newfound prosperity. The song captures the essence of the Rags to Riches theme in a heartfelt and melodic manner.

Elements of the Trope: The Rags to Riches:

  • Introduction of a disadvantaged protagonist living in poverty or facing significant challenges.
  • Encounters with mentors, allies, or benefactors who provide guidance, support, or opportunities for advancement.
  • The protagonist’s display of hard work, talent, or exceptional skills that contribute to their journey to success.
  • The protagonist’s triumph over obstacles and adversaries that stand in their way.
  • Climactic moments of realization, revelation, or success that lead to their transformation into a wealthy or successful individual.

Famous Examples of Rags to Riches:

  • The Great Gatsby. When many think of rags-to-riches stories, the first book that comes to mind is Scott Fitzgerald’s literary fiction The Great Gatsby.
  • The Fountainhead. The Fountainhead is a 1943 novel by Russian-American author Ayn Rand, her first major literary success. The novel’s protagonist, Howard Roark, is an intransigent young architect who battles against conventional standards and refuses to compromise with an architectural establishment unwilling to accept innovation.
  • Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre is a novel by the English writer Charlotte Brontë. Brontë published it under her pen name “Currer Bell” on 19 October 1847 by Smith, Elder & Co. of London.
  • The Count of Monte Cristo. The classic story of an innocent man wrongly, but deliberately imprisoned and his brilliant strategy for revenge against those who betrayed him. Dashing young sailor Edmond Dantes (Jim Caviezel) is a guileless and honest young man. His peaceful life and plans to marry the beautiful Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk) are abruptly shattered when his best friend Fernand (Guy Pearce), who wants Mercedes for himself, deceives him.
Let’s break down “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens:

In Dickens’ novel “Great Expectations,” the main character, Pip, starts as a poor orphan living with his abusive sister and her blacksmith husband. Through a mysterious benefactor, he gains the opportunity to become a gentleman and escape his humble beginnings. The novel’s exploration of social class, ambition, and self-discovery exemplifies the Rags to Riches trope.

Dickens often depicted characters navigating their way through hardscrabble childhoods, and it turns out these fictional stories weren’t so different from his own youth in 1820s England. While Dickens was able to attend school as a child, his father squandered the family finances and was eventually went to prison for not paying his debts. While the rest of the family joined his father behind bars, 12-year-old Charles was sent to labor in a shoe polish factory to help make money. Condemned to an assembly line, he was forced to work grueling 10-hour days in exchange for only six shillings a week.

Dickens was able to return to school after his father repaid the family’s debts, but was later forced to leave a second time to earn money for his family as an office clerk. He eventually graduated to a career as a journalist and writer, winning his first taste of success with 1836’s “The Pickwick Papers.” Dickens would go on to achieve great fame and wealth as one of the 19th century’s literary masters, but the experience of toiling in a rat infested factory haunted him for the rest of his life. In fact, many details from his days as a child laborer later found their way into novels like “David Copperfield,” “Oliver Twist” and “Great Expectations.”

“The Pursuit of Happyness” (Film 2006):

The title is intentionally misspelled, as it also appears as graffiti in a scene in the film. The misspelled phrase is actually taken from an essay written in 1776 that argued that whites and blacks were created equal.

Based on a true story, the film “The Pursuit of Happyness” stars Will Smith as Chris Gardner, a struggling salesman and single father living in poverty. Despite facing homelessness and numerous hardships, Chris perseveres and lands an internship at a prestigious stock brokerage firm, ultimately achieving great success.

"The Pursuit of Happyness" (Film).  The Rags to Riches trope

The Rags to Riches trope continues to be a popular theme in contemporary literature, film, and other forms of storytelling. Modern iterations often explore diverse characters, settings, and challenges, while still adhering to the core theme of transformation and upward mobility.

Its enduring appeal reflects the universal desire for personal growth, achievement, and the possibility of overcoming adversity to achieve success. It resonates with readers and audiences by instilling hope and inspiring them to pursue their dreams, no matter their starting point in life.

What is an example of a rags to riches story?

One real-life example of a rags to riches story is the life of Oprah Winfrey. Born into poverty in rural Mississippi in 1954, Oprah faced numerous hardships and challenges during her childhood, including poverty, abuse, and a difficult family environment. Through her dedication, talent, and entrepreneurial spirit, Oprah transformed herself from a disadvantaged young girl into a self-made media mogul and one of the most influential figures in the entertainment industry. She became a billionaire and philanthropist, using her wealth and platform to support various charitable causes and initiatives.

Oprah showed a passion for media and storytelling from a young age. She began her career as a radio host and later transitioned to television, where she found success as a talk show host. Her talk show, “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” became a groundbreaking and immensely popular program, propelling her to national fame and acclaim.

As Oprah’s media empire grew, she ventured into various business endeavors, including the launch of her own production company, Harpo Productions, and the creation of her own magazine, “O, The Oprah Magazine.” Additionally, she established the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), a television network featuring programming focused on personal development and self-improvement.

Her life journey also embodies the essence of the American Dream, inspiring millions of people around the world to believe in their own potential for personal growth and achievement, regardless of their background or circumstances.

Andrew Carnegie. Often described as the quintessential “rags to riches” tale, the story of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie’s rise begins in 1835 in a small one-room home in Dunfermline, Scotland. Born into a family of destitute laborers, Carnegie received little schooling before his family emigrated to America in 1848.

Whether in literature, music, or film, the journey from rags to riches remains a compelling and timeless tale of triumph.

%d bloggers like this: