The Rags to Riches Mythology and Childhood

A number of texts discussed for this course communicate the American rags to riches mythology, wherein poverty in childhood cause a select person to become incredibly wealthy through hard work and innovation: the ultimate self-made man, or woman, in some cases. In this essay, I will examine the rags to riches myths exemplified by three books, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave by Frederick Douglass (It should be noted that all citations will represent the page number of Kindle e-reader editions, making some page numbers appear exaggerated). My central claim in examining these three works is that childhood inferiority and compensation mechanisms play a huge part in the rags to riches mythology that has become such a fundamental part of American literature.

            The concept of the drive for wealth and success beginning in childhood can be seen in all three aforementioned works. In The Great Gatsby, a young German-American named James Gatz is so disgusted by his poverty that he rebels against his old life to create fantastic new one. Gatz’s parents were, to his mind, “shiftless and unsuccessful farm people –his imagination of them had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself… He invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end,” (Fitzgerald, 98). Similarly, in The House of Mirth, a young Lily Bart is influenced by her mother, who “hated dinginess, and it was her fate to be dingy… ‘People can’t marry you if they don’t see you –and how can they see you in these holes where we’re stuck?’ That was the burden of her lament; and her last adjuration to her daughter was to escape from dinginess if she could,” (Wharton, 535). And in Narrative, a teenaged Frederick Bailey, still a slave at the time, found himself motivated to become educated and free after a chance encounter with literacy. After overhearing his master scold his wife for teaching a slave the alphabet, Douglass asserts that “these words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments that lay slumbering… From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom,” (Douglass, 45).

            Though the texts run the gamut from antebellum times to the Roaring Twenties, from factual autobiography to fiction, they express a fundamental trope that can be seen again and again in such literature: that discontent at a young age leads to a continual yearning for greater and greater success, with success defined by the young, distressed self and carried through the entirety of one’s life. In two cases –Jay Gatsby and Frederick Douglass– early encounters with the world of success and comfort motivate the lead characters to break out of their current circumstances. Similarly, the inability of the lead characters to outgrow, change, or update their definitions of success –Lily Bart and Jay Gatsby– leads to their ruin.

            Upon reflecting on the importance of childhood in the scheme of the rags to riches myth, it becomes apparent that motivation, like the ill-defined American Dream, has both a positive and negative side. Sometimes, aspiration can lead to spectacular triumphs, as seen in the life of Frederick Douglass, who went on to become the most famous black man of his time and an outspoken advocate of human rights and equality. In other cases, the failure to moderate one’s expectations or address one’s personal problems allows ambition and hubris to ruin lives, as seen in The House of Mirth and The Great Gatsby. Because Lily Bart is forever seeking to escape the dinginess of her younger self, she fears withdrawing from the rat race of success and marriage. Similarly, Jay Gatsby’s fanatical obsession with bringing his boyhood fantasy to life alienates those close to him and destroys his chance of ever being with his love, Daisy Buchanan.

            The idea of childhood in the larger schema of the rags to riches myth can be seen reflected in both the fact and fiction of today’s contemporary society. President Barack Obama often hearkens back to his days as a boy from a family of modest means, eking out a living in Kansas and Hawaii while dreaming of bigger things. Some of the most influential and highest-selling musical acts of the 21st century, including rappers Eminem and Jay-Z, use their music to recall growing up in poor and dysfunctional families, in communities beset by crime, violence, and racism. And the popularity of modern movies like Slumdog Millionaire, The Pursuit of Happyness, American Gangster, and The Great Gatsby all attest to the popularity of this particular strain of the pervasive rags to riches myth.



Works Cited

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print


Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Mineola: Dover Publications, 2002. Print.


Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.

New York: Random House, 2000. Print. 


Unhappy Women Writing: Separating Fanny Fern and Ruth Hall

In an 1855 letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall: “The woman writes as if the Devil was in her; and that is the only condition under which a woman ever writes anything worth reading. Generally women write like emasculated men… but when they throw off the restraints of decency and come before the public stark naked, as it were, –then their books are sure to possess character and value” (Ticknor 142).

 Though Hawthorne saw in Fern’s novel a quality he found lacking in the work of most women writers, most other critics of the time felt the opposite. The “stark naked” way Fern presents the story of Ruth Hall was criticized broadly as being unfeminine, and Fern was attacked for her satirical treatment of characters based on her own family. Ultimately, these were not critiques of the novel, but of Fern’s position as a successful woman writer, and how she made use of that position. In my paper I explore a distinction that the critics of the time were unable (or unwilling) to make: that there is a difference between Ruth Hall and Fanny Fern.

 Even though Fanny Fern was initially writing for money, by the time she published Ruth Hall, her writing was also serving as social commentary. However, within the text Fern is very careful not to let her protagonist make the kind of commentary made implicitly in the narrative. Modern day readers can put aside the obsession with the Fanny Fern’s gender and actually read Fern’s social commentary about gender and work. Rather than fearing Fanny Fern’s observations, we are able to examine Ruth Hall’s relationship to her work as a writer, and separate that from what Fanny Fern was saying about what it meant to be a woman supporting herself as a writer at the time. 

Frederick Douglass: a self-made voice

My paper examines the development of Douglass’ Narrative as a delicately woven account aimed beyond simply giving testimony of southern slavery in America, in attempt to understand the fashion in which Douglass wrote and the development of his voice throughout Narrative.  A firm understanding of how and why Douglass developed his narrative and bridged the divide between his former and then-current selves contributes a greater understanding of Douglass’ climb to an articulate, successful leader and representative of different repressed groups alike.  We can see Douglass crafting a relation between his former and current self at points in Narrative where Douglass refers to how mistreated he was as a young slave, and that the pen with which he describes these circumstances could have fit in the cracks in his feet.  It is also seen at transitional points in Narrative, such as when Douglass must decide what his name will be.  Ultimately it is Douglass’ attentive rhetoric and his graphic account of transitioning from slave to free man that underscore the legitimacy of his work and the importance of his perspective.

Will the Real Daisy Buchanan Please Stand Up?

My paper examines Daisy’s association with the color white in The Great Gatsby. Though we understand white to be a symbol of purity and virtue, it is associated with Daisy who utterly lacks these qualities. In my research, I came to the conclusion that this ironic yoking was done to highlight the distinction between the essential Daisy and the role she assumes for herself—similar to an actress playing a part. This is significant because we can link Daisy and the symbolism of the color white in three ways: conventionally, literally and thematically.

Conventionally, white symbolizes purity and virtue. Though this is not true of Daisy at heart, it is true of the role she plays. References to her “white dresses”, “white girlhood”, “white roadster”, etc. symbolize the white virtue of this role.

Literally, white symbolizes blankness or emptiness, which characterize the real Daisy. As an actress, it seems quite fitting that Daisy is an “empty” person; Like any good, actress she voids herself of personality in order to better project that of the one she’s playing. This characteristic manifests itself in her passivity—she’s described as “helpless”, “inconsequential”, “unobtrusive”.

Harking on the “illusion vs. reality” theme, thematically, white symbolizes illusion. Daisy relates to this symbolism because she herself is an illusion; she appears to be something she is not (yet another actor-ly trait). We see this deceptive quality In a conversation she has with Nick where remarks “…the basic insincerity of what she had said. It made [him] uneasy, as though the whole evening had been a trick of some sort to exact a contributary emotion from [him].” This sounds much like the experience of seeing a play.

These three symbols all directly relate to Daisy, thus enlightening our understanding of her association with the color white.

The American Dream: It’s All Greek To Me

My paper examines the Aristotelian connection between the ideal lives conveyed in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. I am researching this topic in order to discover if there is a universally agreed upon ideal life in American society. This is significant because the term “the American dream” is amorphous, and may be used to describe Franklin’s industry driven life or the simplistic natural living suggested by Thoreau. I hope in researching this topic, I gain a better understanding of the nature of individuals in American society.

In light of all of the above, my claim is that both Franklin and Thoreau are striving for Aristotle’s ideal life, a state of eudemonia, living well and doing well. According to Aristotle, this state consists of two virtues, virtue of thought and virtue of character. Virtue of thought is a state of constant contemplation while virtue of character refers to ethical decision-making. Virtue of thought and virtue of character are present in both authors’ works. For example, we observe a Thoreauvian description of virtue of thought when the author describes all human beings as having the natural tendency to be “essentially students and observers” (Thoreau 97).  In addition, Virtue of character is seen in Franklin’s autobiography when the author instructs his reader to “eat not to dullness [and] drink not to elevation” (Franklin 301).


Ruth Hall: Fanny Fern’s Message to Single Women

My paper examines the link between Ruth Hall’s isolation and her determination to provide a better life for her family, in order to find out how losing her daughter and husband and being rejected by her friends and relatives enabled Ruth to realize the importance of independence and financial stability. This is significant because it will help me to better understand why Fanny Fern – who remarried twice after the death of her first husband – chose to have Ruth remain a single mother after becoming a widow. My main claim is that Ruth’s selflessness and perseverance – despite having drawbacks such as being taken advantage of by certain people – are rewarded by the gaining of a community, who appreciate her worth, and the assistance of Mr. Walter, who changes her life. For instance, when Hyacinth tells Ruth she is “untalented” and should seek “unobtrusive employment” we see a change in Ruth’s attitude. She accepts that she can no longer depend on her relatives. She vows to be a success by declaring, “I can do it, I feel it, I will do it” (Fern 147). She puts herself out there and keeps her determination to make a better life for her children despite being paid only a pittance by Mr. Lescom and Mr. Tibbetts. Through her perseverance she is able to gain a following, among them being Mr. Walter. Ruth creates her own good fortune through her selflessness, and the lesson I take away from Fanny Fern is to never give up.

Bartleby the “Success”

John Owen Ford
I have written my paper on Herman Melville’s Bartleby and on specifically determining why although Bartleby seemed at first to comply with Franklin’s prerequisites of success, industry and frugality, Bartleby was not only unsuccessful but entirely unsavory. The reason for pursuing this cause is to figure out where the desires of the individual and the rules of society may find a middle ground. A life lived for industry and the accumulation of wealth as an end in itself lacks experiences fundamental to a healthy human life. Furthermore a life of revelry lived selfishly for only personal enjoyment likewise lacks an important element of human behavior. The individual as a member of the society must be at once guaranteed certain freedoms and enforce certain rules. It is in keeping to a path between these two extremes that a true American Dream can reach fruition and a “success” be made. It is important to discover this leyline of purpose so that the life one chooses to live is both enjoyed and respected. Through an understanding Bartleby’s faults and strengths the reader may allow himself to question the assumptions they and society possess in order to live a more fulfilling life.