Appearances and Upward Mobility in Ragged Dick

By Natalie

The morning service commenced. It must be acknowledged that Dick felt rather awkward. It was an unusual place for him, and it need not be wondered at that he felt like a cat in a strange garret. He would not have known when to rise if he had not taken notice of what the rest of the audience did, and followed their example. He was sitting next to Ida, and as it was the first time he had ever been near so well-dressed a young lady, he naturally felt bashful. When the hymns were announced, Ida found the place, and offered a hymn-book to our hero. Dick took it awkwardly, but his studies had not yet been pursued far enough for him to read the words easily. However, he resolved to keep up appearances, and kept his eyes fixed steadily on the hymn-book.
At length the service was over. The people began to file slowly out of church, and among them, of course, Mr. Greyson's family and the two boys. It seemed very strange to Dick to find himself in such different companionship from what he had been accustomed, and he could not help thinking, "Wonder what Johnny Nolan 'ould say if he could see me now!" (p. 80)
This passage from Ragged Dick appears in a chapter entitled "Dick's First Appearance in Society." This title itself is very significant, for it performs several functions. First, it informs the reader of this important early step for Dick on his quest for respectability in the eyes of society. Second, it draws the reader's attention to an important theme in the passage and also in the work as a whole, which is the idea of appearances and the key role they play in respectability and class identity.

The reader is aware that Dick probably looks fairly presentable on the outside, for he is a good-looking boy in a decent suit, and he has, at this point in the story, learned to keep himself clean. Nonetheless, he feels "rather awkward," next to the "well-dressed" (and also refined, educated, and attractive) Ida Greyson. He is acutely, even painfully aware of the differences that still remain between himself and the wealthier people around him, feeling like "a cat in a strange garret." With the use of this phrase, however, the narrator suggests that this is a feeling which Dick may soon overcome with practice -- he does not feel like a cat in, say, a pond or some other totally unnatural element. For only by becoming conscious of these differences has Dick made it possible for himself to overcome them. In his current struggle, however, Dick is aware he cannot actually make use of the hymnal offered him, but he feels the need to "keep up appearances," and so tries to look involved. Although he is on the right path to success, it is very revealing of his current state of awe that he "cannot help thinking, 'Wonder what Johnny Nolan 'ould say if he could see me now!'" This quote also demonstrates Dick's appreciation for the opinion of others, which is, after all, the central idea behind the concept of "keeping up appearances."

There are several other ways in which the narrator subtly alerts the reader to the fact that Dick's estrangement from civilized society will only be temporary. He points out, in a clever use of words, that Dick "would not have known when to rise if he had not taken notice of what the rest of the audience did, and followed their example." This sentence presents a neat parallel to Dick's entire situation -- he is currently concerned with "rising" in society, and his only resource is to observe the people he respects, and to strive to emulate them. The narrator also notes that Dick's studies had not yet reached a sufficient level of literacy, making it fairly obvious that this time will, eventually, arrive. It is also significant that Dick's first "appearance in society" is in a church, craftily reminding the reader of the close relationship Dick already has with virtue. And, since Alger seems to suggest that the virtuous receive their reward, the reader can be assured that Dick will fare well.

ENLT 214M, 9 September 1997