How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
Rags to Riches
The title describes well this plot, where a person who is poor becomes rich and successful.
The story starts with the hero being clearly at the bottom of the social hierarchy, even within the family as the youngest child. They are kept in this position by a wicked oppressor, such as a step-parent or older siblings. By luck or choice they escape and find success, though this is short-lived, as a sharp crisis forces them to dig deep and fight for their position.
The structure of the story has the following pattern:
In the journey of gaining and using wealth the hero finds courage and wisdom yet perhaps gets to show their lasting humility. Their strivings may be laughed at and their visions shattered, yet they persist, breaking through their former timidity and rising to the challenge. In many ways, the central crisis is the making of the person far more than the initial rise to success.
Variants of the rags to riches story include the enslaved child, the struggling artist, the lone inventor and the aimless vagrant. There is also a darker version where the hero is corrupted by success.
Where a population is largely poor, rags to riches stories provide hope and fuel for dreams. They are hence common across all cultures. It is not unsurprising that many rags to riches tales are old, established stories that are commonly heard in childhood and may be used to encourage children to work hard.
Riches may not simply mean wealth, but success in the broader sense. Perhaps the greatest success is internal as this is really a story of personal transformation, which is never easy nor straightforward.
Wealth seldom arrives out of the blue, although the sudden acquisition of riches can lead to another form of the story as the newly-rich person struggles to cope with situations such as life an aristocrat. The power money brings offers temptation and how this is handled adds to the story.
The central crisis follows a 'false ending', where it may seem as if the story has completed. In multi-volume, episodic stories, the crisis may be left hanging for resolution in future episodes. If the first part of the story is successful, the peaking principle may be eked out across multiple crises rather than having one such point. This is the fate of people in soap operas and TV series, whose lives endlessly lurch from one trauma to the next.
The great American Dream is one of rags to riches, where the poor immigrant makes a fortune and becomes rich and powerful. There are enough true stories about this to make it seem a real possibility, although of course few make it and many are consequently disappointed when their efforts fail. This frustrated aspiration is described in Alain de Botton's 'Status Anxiety', where he describes the desire for social improvement as a fundamental driving force for many people.
Rags to riches stories include The Ugly Duckling, The Man in the Iron Mask, Pygmalion, Cinderella, Dick Whittington, Aladdin, David Copperfield, Jane Eyre and Slumdog Millionaire.
'Rags to Riches' is the second of Booker's Seven Basic Plots.
de Botton, A. (2005). Status Anxiety, London: Penguin