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Novels of Horatio Alger: Archetypes and Themes


Hero: the protagonist of the Alger novel has several important characteristics, many of which can be tied to the Cinderella/ Male Cinderella types of fairy tales. Firstly, he has typically lost either his father or mother, if not both. If he has not lost either parent, then he typically leaves home and is forced to support himself. He is always self-reliant. Secondly, although the hero may not have had the same educational opportunities as most children his age, he is quick and eager to learn, and has a natural wit that carries him through complicated situations. He is most often shorter than his peers, but strongly built with an aristocratic mien. He looks honest. He often is a powerful swimmer. The Alger hero is noble and honest, and will often involve himself in situations in which the weak are oppressed by the strong. He has a very powerful internal sense of justice. Although he does not attend church regularly, the Alger hero has a nebulous Christian faith: he believes in providence and moral behavior. He does not drink or smoke, even when encouraged. He is sympathetic to all men, even those who have wronged him.

Patron: the patron is the Fairy Godmother of the Alger novel. The patron is usually a very wealthy man (though there are some instances of female patronage), and is always older than the hero. He takes a strong interest in the education (through school or business) of the hero, and will contribute either his time or resources to helping him. In his sponsorship, he takes care to encourage the hero's self-reliance: any serious investments that the patron gives are given as loans, and he often tests the hero's honor and loyalty. The patron is himself always the final evolution of a hero; the patron was once poor too, but ambitious, like the hero, and he always serves as a successful example.

Miser: the miser is the foil to the patron. He is the obstacle in the hero's path to financial security. However, the miser is often the impetus for the hero's ambition. When the hero has a family, the miser holds the mortgage on their house. When the hero has both his parents, the miser resents the father for marrying the only woman he ever loved; he resents the mother for rejecting a marriage proposal. He holds the mortgage over the family as a threat. Typically, the miser takes a just action of the hero's as a deliberate wrong to him, and uses it as his justification to threaten eviction. It is this need for money that drives the hero. The miser is typically from poor roots himself, but actively works to forget it. He feels that he possesses a natural aristocracy and often regrets that he does not live in Europe, where his nobility would be legally recognized. Frequently, the miser's first name is Jewish; although his religion is never mentioned directly, this reveals a slightly anti-Semitic sentiment in many of Alger's works.

Gentleman: the gentleman is a patron-in-training. Typically close to the hero in age, the gentleman is a rich young man who recognizes the hero as a fellow noble being despite the class barrier. The gentleman functions with a strong democratic ideal; he believes absolutely that only a man's actions make him any better or worse than any other. He views his wealth as the result of luck and hard work. The gentleman will use his resources to help the hero move into sophisticated circles; he will use his educational benefits to help the hero learn. Many times, he will give the hero a set of his clothes. The gentleman serves as a foil to the fop.

Fop: The fop is the opposite of the gentleman. Although the fop is rich, he feels that his wealth raises him above other men, particularly the hero, who he views as a lower-class social climber. The fop is never as rich as the gentleman, nor as rich as he would like to be, and desires the gentleman's friendship greatly as a result. He resents the hero for his friendship with the gentleman. Often, the fop is the son of the miser. At some point in the novel, the fop typically falls into poverty, either through his own doing or through his father's. The hero then displays his nobility by forgiving the fop, and becoming either a patron or gentleman to him.

Spendthrift: The spendthrift is similar to the fop in many ways, and in several novels, one character serves as both. When they are separate, the spendthrift often begins as an acquaintance to the hero; but where the hero is ambitious, the spendthrift is not. When the hero saves his money, the spendthrift wastes it on cigars, alcohol, lottery tickets, fine clothing, and billiards. The spendthrift is lazy and unmotivated. In some cases, the spendthrift will resent the hero for his miserliness, and will even, occasionally, turn to crime and steal from the hero.

Villain: The villain is a criminal. He functions through lies and deceit. He is dangerously single-minded, and at times, he is deadly. He preys on the weak and unsuspecting. He will steal from others through outright theft, confidence games, or kidnapping and ransom. He typically has dark facial hair, and an untrustworthy face. When he attempts to steal from the hero, the hero gets the best of him with quick wits, a strong will, or by trusting the authorities.

Bully: The bully is a young villain; however, unlike the villain, the bully has the potential to still become good, even to become a hero. He is never as smart as the hero, and relies on strength and strong-arm tactics to cow others, mistaking fear for respect. When the hero begins his rise, the bully resents him for rising above his station; he accuses the hero of "putting on airs." Should the fop or miser conspire to ruin the hero's reputation, the bully will sometimes do the dirty work to develop a plot of false accusation. Whatever the bully does, the hero will forgive him and will often cite intemperance or abuse by a parent as the reason for the bully's behavior. If given the opportunity, the hero will become a patron to the bully, offering money and employment assistance in return for the bully's promise to give up his old ways.

Pawnbroker: A minor character who does not appear in every tale, the pawnbroker is comparable in many ways to the miser. He typically has a first name of Jewish origin, and he works against the hero, who is attempting to pawn a special item to make a business investment. Unlike the miser, the pawnbroker is purely avaricious. Although he dislikes the hero for his business sense (which prevents the pawnbroker from fashioning a purely unfair bargain, the item that the hero wants to pawn is desired so much by the pawnbroker that the hero is able to name his own terms.


Business and investments: Economic theory predominates in all of Alger's juvenile novels. Many heroes are involved in business and have to be adept at understanding interest, profits, debt, and financial risk and security. Even when not involved in business, a system of cosmic (karmic) investments figures strongly: the previous good deeds of the hero are typically repaid when he is in danger of failing utterly.

Chance: The theme of luck, fortune, and chance figures strongly in Alger's work. A combination of luck and ambition raise the hero to his new life. Alger may want to protect his young readers from dejection at their inability to perform as well; he may also want to address issues of divine justice, providence, and the magical luck of fairy tale heroes. Even bad luck, although it may initially place the hero in very difficult situations, proves useful. Chance serves as a test of the hero's ingenuity and optimism; it also places the hero on the path to particularly advantageous situations.

Coach Ride: In Alger novels with a rural setting the hero undertakes at least one suspenseful coach ride across a deserted landscape, usually on the errand of transporting money. This coach ride provides the hero an opportunity to be held up by a highwayman and use his quick wits to escape from the situation.

Drop Game: In Alger novels with a rural setting, a minor villain usually attempts to trick the hero with a con game. In this con, the villain will drop a wallet with fake bills on the ground and remove himself to a nearby location. When he sees a naive person walking towards the wallet, he will walk over and call attention to it. He will ask the mark if the wallet belongs to him. When the mark replies that it doesn't, the villain will say that he would find the owner, but is on his way to an important appointment, and cannot spare the time. He will mention that a large reward is certainly likely, and will ask the mark if he can find the owner for him. In return for this work, the villain will say, they can split the reward money. However, he will add, since he must leave immediately, the mark should simply pay him a small amount for the wallet, and then collect the reward himself, which will almost certainly be more than twice what he is asking for the wallet. However, this game usually does not work on the hero. Either the hero himself is wise to such a ploy and will frighten the villain away, or a nearby police officer will see the interchange and apprehend the villain. Regardless, the scene usually ends with the hero getting a wallet full of fake money; though valueless, this wallet will usually help the hero in a tight situation later.

Education: The desire to educate himself is of prime importance to the Alger hero; in particular, gaining fluency in foreign languages. French and German indicate a character's desire to fit into genteel circles; Latin and Greek indicate his desire to become a scholar.

False accusation: In almost every Alger novel, the hero is wrongfully accused of a crime, either through a case of mistaken identity or conspiracy of adversaries. Although he is always absolved of any guilt, the accusation serves as a suspenseful plot device. A circumstantial connection between this theme and Alger's own life, charged with accusations of pederasty before his juvenile writing career, can be drawn and should be considered.

Foresight: Of the many advantages that the Alger hero possesses, none is more important than foresight. It is tied to his success in business, since he always recognizes the potential return on investments. It keeps him safe, since it helps him to recognize dangerous situations and plan accordingly.

Gift: The patron often gives monetary gifts or loans to the hero; the gentleman, education or books. However, in almost every novel, at some point a wealthy associate of the hero gives him a gift that is symbolic in nature: the patron will often give a silver watch and chain, which serves as the first sign of the hero's rise into higher circles. The gentleman will give the hero a suit that he no longer wears, which serves much the same purpose.

Invitation: In a theme comparable to Cinderella's ball, the hero is often invited to the home of a patron or gentleman for dinner or a birthday party. It is always noted that the hero, though nervous that he will show himself to be unmannerly, performs admirably by observing the actions of others, be they eating or dancing. It is often at this meeting of high society that the hero has the opportunity to show off new clothing, or a newly learned foreign language.

Orphaned: The protagonist has typically lost one or both of his parents; occasionally, he has gained a stepparent. This family structure serves two very important themes: firstly, the lack of a strong parental figure forces the hero to rely on himself. Alger wants to foster this ingenuity and independence in his readers; it is the American ideal. Secondly, the loss of the parent alludes to the Cinderella tale.

Physiognomy: Either alluded to directly or suggested in passing description, the concept of physiognomy is pervasive in Alger's works. The heroes are almost always described as possessing "frank, open faces," and the villains being "black whiskered individuals." This concept combines with the themes of luck and providence by suggesting that the heroes are predestined from birth to succeed in their adventures. The idea of the frank and open face is also referenced in cases of false accusation and karmic investments: in both cases, the heroes face leads others to trust and reward them.

Rhetoric: Many Alger heroes share the ability of rhetoric. Either in their salesmanship, debating, or school recitations, the heroes are born public speakers, who impress and inspire those around them.

Second Payments: A common action taken by the miser is to demand a second interest payment of the hero's family. He will wait until he is certain that the family has lost the receipt or any other direct evidence of prior payment, and then involve a lawyer and threaten eviction unless he receives another payment. In each case, the receipt or other direct evidence is found before the miser's plan succeeds, and he is humiliated. This humiliation usually drives the miser into even more open confrontation with the hero.

Temperance: Usually, the hero has the opportunity to indulge in alcohol or cigars; to both, he refuses. Although the path of the hero is certainly a wise one for young children to take, it is also likely an indication of Alger's own attitudes: during the period in which he wrote, the Temperance Movement was gaining force and rapidly becoming a nationally organized issue.