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The Ends, not the Means, Reveal the Most

While both Hamlin Garland’s “Under the Lion’s Paw” and Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick serve as convincing depictions of life in nineteenth century America, the two works present contradictory views regarding the reality of how the world truly opera

While both Hamlin Garland?s ?Under the Lion?s Paw? and Horatio Alger?s Ragged Dick serve as convincing depictions of life in nineteenth century America, the two works present contradictory views regarding the reality of how the world truly operates. Alger presents the conviction that any goal, no matter how far-fetched, can be attained through hard work, perseverance, and a strict code of ethics. Though Garland also endeavors to teach his audience lessons about good, honest labor, he contrarily contends that in reality, the ruthless, not the meek, ultimately inherit the earth as they depend upon the law-abiding citizens to perform the dirty work. Garland does not imply by any means that one should discard one?s morals for the sake of success, but he does reveal that decent people do not necessarily get their happy endings. The important dissimilarity between the two writers lies in the closure of their works, wherein Hamlin Garland?s working-class heroes, the Haskins, must submit to the injustices of mid-western society whereas an equally hard-working Ragged Dick, the protagonist of Horatio Alger?s tale, relishes in the benefits of his labor and consistent string of good luck. Essentially, the authors? closure techniques reveal the degree of realism present in their works.

            To a point, both Garland and Alger represent many of the ideals of the realist movement in America. They both place their ordinary, American characters in unromantic settings where prosperity requires a fair amount of struggle. For instance, Ragged Dick presents readers with a young shoe-shiner who readily admits to sleeping ??at the Fifth Avenue Hotel?on the outside?? (Alger 56). At the onset of the novel, Dick virtually owns nothing besides the clothes on his back and the dirt smears on his face. Similarly, the Haskins family in ?Under the Lion?s Paw? arrives penniless at the Council?s door and relies on their mercy for temporary lodging and the purchase of a ?run down? piece of land (Garland 135). Like Dick, they embark on their pursuit of happiness with nothing to lose. These deprived characters typify the common man of the late nineteenth century, making them accessible to Americans that earlier literature failed to mention.

            Although both authors take the realist, instructive approach in maintaining that hard and honest work solves these desperate situations, Garland takes the message a step further than Alger. In Ragged Dick, Dick continually tries to ameliorate his situation by saving his money, learning to read, going to church, and controlling his emotions, to name a few. With his responsible actions, his conditions improve, signifying that if one has the will, a way exists to reach one?s goals if one simply takes the initiative. Mr. Whitney sums up this notion well when he says to Dick, ?Remember that your future position depends mainly upon yourself, and that it will be high or low as you choose to make it? (Alger 57). Conversely, Garland imparts that realistically, it takes more than unwavering perseverance to succeed. In the real world, particularly in mid-western America, one might ?[toil] without intermission till the darkness [falls] on the plain? as the Haskins do, and they may at first observe definite changes (Garland 138). Ultimately, however, all their work comes to mean nothing because the government exploits and the common man, symbolized by Mr. Butler refusing to sell the Haskins their land at a reasonable price. Thus, Garland expresses that total dependence upon oneself gets one nowhere.

            Even though Alger places a large emphasis on the strength of the individual, he also acknowledges that the common man must rely on the charity of others if he wants to climb the social ladder. In contrast with Garland, however, Alger attempts to illustrate that the number of people willing to help offset those who wish to bring others down. Alger instructively indicates that as long as one goes through life with morals intact, eventually good things will come back to them. In Dick?s case, with every act of kindness he commits, like returning change to a customer and rescuing a drowning girl, he coincidentally makes contacts with people who help him achieve his goals. While this may seem to be a lot like luck, Alger simply states that a community of decent people exists in the world in a never ending cycle of goodwill. Dick does his part for the community at the closure of the story when he gives his shoe shining equipment to ?other boys less fortunate than himself? (Alger 132). Though these boys might deem themselves lucky, they are simply new members of the cycle of goodness.

            This idealistic view contrasts significantly with the Haskins? situation in ?Under the Lion?s Paw. While they initially believe their problems are solved when they meet the Councils, as indicated by Mr. Haskins? comment: ??There are people in this world who are good enough t? be angels, an? only haff t? die to be angels??, the helpful community found in Ragged Dick does not exist in their world (Garland 135). Therefore, the supposed luck that Dick consistently seems to encounter does not come around to the Haskins again but is replaced by the oppressive Mr. Butler, a man with no regard those under him. In fact, he sums up this point perfectly in his justification for raising the price of the land when he says, ??Don?t take me for a thief. It?s the law?Everybody does it?? (Garland 143).  Thus, the sequence of kind acts is broken, totally opposing the sense of circularity found in Ragged Dick. It does, however, present readers with much more realistic closure.

            Undoubtedly, Alger uses a more circuitous and optimistic method of closure for his novel because he intends to inspire the masses. Since the realist author could ?no longer expect to be received on the ground of entertainment only?, authors like Alger additionally had to incorporate instructive overtones into their work, rendering the tales practical and informative for the common reader (Howells cit. Bell 17). In essence, if Ragged Dick had ended with the same sense of despair found in ?Under the Lion?s Paw?, Alger?s original goal of instruction would be lost. Garland seemingly writes his story almost as a response to Alger?s romantic conclusion, moving away from instruction and telling it like it is. People romanticized the west for all its promising opportunities and Garland decided to enlighten them. The truth comes from Mr. Butler, the most loathsome yet authentic character in the story, when he tells Mr. Haskins, ??Never trust anybody, my friend?? (Garland 143). Whilst this message could be deemed anything but inspiring, it definitely encompasses a more realist nature than does Alger?s.

            The strategies of closure that Garland and Alger use in their works contrast immensely, however, both endings correspond well with the rest of their tales. Alger ends his novel with optimism and promise in hopes that readers will be inspired with the instructive overtones. Dick gets what he deserves by way of the grand social network of kindness and support from the higher classes. Although he receives so much aid, this does not detract from his accomplishments, but in comparison to the poor, hard-working Haskins who end in misery, it makes the difference between the realist and more idealist story lines more distinct. Garland?s narrative, though he affirms is strictly realist, contains sparks of romanticism that come out at the end because even though the reader pities the Haskins, at least they maintain their dignity and never stray from their morals. Ultimately, both ?Under the Lion?s Paw? and Ragged Dick end in a way so as to remain true to the nature of the entire stories, meant to leave the reader either in a state of frustration and pity, or delight in the accomplishments of the common man.
































Alger Jr., Horatio. Ragged Dick. New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 1986.

Bell, Michael Davitt. ?Sin of Art, The.? Problem of American Realism, The. Chicago:

University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Garland, Hamlin. ?Under the Lion?s Paw.? Main-Travelled Roads. Lincoln: University of

Nebraska Press, 1995.


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