Ragged Dick has a variety of themes which can be extracted from the characters and events in the novel. One of the themes which can be considered major is 'Work vs. Leisure'. Leisure can be defined as ‘time when one is free from the demands of work’ or the ‘use of free time for enjoyment’. Throughout the novel the characters in Ragged Dick are either working or occupying their free time, as a result of this Alger encourages “the merits of honesty, hard work, and cheerfulness in adversity.”
The plot is a key element when discussing the theme of 'Work vs. Leisure'. Ragged Dick is a homeless fourteen year old boy, who is known for, his honesty. The novel emphasises Ragged Dick’s motivation to become ‘spectable’. Alger implements many literary tools to clarify this point. For example, the character development of the protagonist Ragged Dick. Dick’s character is developed significantly from the start of the novel. At the beginning the reader learns that one of Dick’s ‘faults’ was his ‘extravagance’. Dick spent his free time at the ‘Old Bowery Theatre’, ‘Tony Pastor’s’ and on the occasion a ‘gambling house’ which was sometimes crowded with ‘juvenile gamesters’. These past discrepancies meant that whatever ‘he managed to earn during the day… was generally spent before morning.’ However, this all changes when he meets Frank Whitney. This character development interrelate with Dick’s mood and point of view, “I mean to turn over a new leaf, and try to grow up ‘spectable.” This is also a vital part of the plot, as the reader sees a clear change in character, as Dick begins to save his money, and is “willin’ to work hard”. Alger makes a clear link between work and success, he uses Dick to show the advantage of morally moving away from leisure and towards work. This is further developed when Mr. Whitney tells Dick to, “avoid extravagance”. Dick’s outlook on life changes from this, instead of being ‘content to live on from day to day without a penny ahead’, he begins to save his money in the bank. Ragged Dick’s story is not necessarily a ‘rags to riches’ story, as his main aim is to be respected. Dick ‘despite some bad habits (smoking, swearing, theatre going) is in essence a reputable boy stuck in disreputable circumstances’. Therefore, it would be more appropriate to say this story is one of ‘rags to respectability’.
Similar to Dick, Henry Fosdick is driven by the prospect of wanting a better quality of life and the only way he can achieve this is through work. However, there is a contrast between Henry and Dick, Henry is a more timid character and therefore does not earn as much money as Dick from ‘shoe shining’, this lack of opportunity leads him to pursue another career. During the time when ‘business slackened’, Henry got copies of the “Morning Herald” and “Sun”. Through many job applications and failures Henry still worked and looked for a better job, despite being ‘discouraged’. After, seeing one advertisement he was ‘determined to make an application’. Henry has a clear determination to work and although he had once lived in ‘comfort’ he does not shy away from his work duties compared to other characters. Henry’s values are the same as Dick’s they both want to be honourable and attain respectable jobs which will give them good pay. As he becomes more prominent after gaining a new job, Henry’s character is also developed in a way.
Compared to characters such as Henry Fosdick, Johnny Nolan’s character is stuck in the ‘shoe shining’ business. Paralleled to the other character’s Johnny Nolan has no significant character development. However, Alger uses this character as a tool to show what happens if you do not work or change your lifestyle and how you will be stuck in the same place/job. Whereas, Dick is ‘energetic and on the alert for business’, Johnny is “lazy” and doesn’t try. This can also be seen when Dick and Johnny are talking about the farm Johnny had lived on. When Dick asks if Johnny liked it, he replies “No, I had to wake up too early”, Alger adds frequent comments about Johnny’s laziness and lack of “ambition”. In addition to this, readers learn that Johnny went to school once, but decided it was “too hard work” and decided to give up. Johnny has a passive view towards work, which can link him to characters such has Jim Travis who has ‘no fancy for work’. Alger’s tone when conveying these two explicit characters is the opposite of how he expresses Dick. In Chapter Twenty-Two, Alger gives the reader an insight into how dishonest and devious Travis is. His aggressive nature is further developed in Chapter Twenty-Three, when he gets caught by the Police, ““Curse you!” said Travis, scowling vindictively. “Wait till I get free. See if I don’t fix you.”” Travis’ horrific outburst is a clear sign of how depleting life can get when you don’t work. Here, Alger is making a statement on how the lack of work can lead to a bad lifestyle and criminal behaviour.
Both Mr. Whitney and his nephew Frank come from respectable backgrounds and work hard. Mr. Whitney and his nephew Frank are introduced to the readers in Chapter Three and have a higher position in society than the leading character Dick. However, Alger uses these characters as an indication of what might become of Dick if he were to work hard and follow their advice. As, Mr. Whitney has a modest background, which his nephew explains to Dick, Mr. Whitney “came to New York as a young man he was a teacher,” he also states that teachers are “not generally rich.” This gives an insight into how hard Mr. Whitney had to work to get to the point he is at today. He also worked his way up and “determined in the beginning: that he would be strictly honourable in all his dealings.” This is an admirable quality which a working man should have. When Frank says, “If there is a chance for him, Dick, there is a chance for you”, this statement potentially changes the trajectory of the story as Dick realises that he could have a better life. In addition to this, Mr. Whitney states what he does during his leisure hours, he improves himself by studying and was able to “acquire a large part of the knowledge” which he now possesses. The prospect of learning more and working harder seems admirable to Dick as it will help him achieve his goal of being respected. Alger makes it clear that it takes a lot of effort and hard work, during both working and leisure time. Also all this hard work will help achieve the ‘rags to riches’ myth.
 Horatio Alger Jr.; Bode, Carl (Ed.) (1985). "Introduction". Ragged Dick and Struggling Upward. Penguin Books. pp. ix–xii
 John Swansburg, “The Self-Made Man,” Slate <http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/history/2014/09/the_self_made_man_history_of_a_myth_from_ben_franklin_to_andrew_carnegie.html> accessed 23 November 2015