Stories have a magical power over us. They can entertain, enlighten, frighten, or inspire us. Great stories can send us on a rollercoaster of sensations, but when it comes to feeling inspired, nothing does it quite like a rag-to-riches tale. These can generate a kind of euphoria—a delight from seeing someone rise from nothing to become someone great. As Christopher Booker says in his excellent book The Seven Basic Plots, "In all these scenes [from Rags-to-Riches stories], someone who has seemed to the world quite commonplace is dramatically shown to have been hiding the potential for a second, more exceptional, self within." The idea of rising to the challenge draws many to this genre. If you want to dig into the transformative power of rags-to-riches tales and grab some inspiration, start with the following classics.1
The Great Gatsby
When many think of rags-to-riches stories, the first book that comes to mind is The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald's peerless work centers on the enigmatic and powerful Gatsby, who, although he began life with humble origins, drives himself to become the embodiment of the success of his era. Like many characters in this genre, Gatsby's rise to glory involves many external changes; however, deep down, he is still the same person who cares about the same people from his previous life. The story of his rise and his attachments to those he loves are at the center of this phenomenal book.
Next comes one of the greatest novels of all time: Great Expectations. Charles Dickens tells the story of Pip, a lowly orphan who rises to incredible heights of wealth. However, unlike Gatsby, Pip is seduced by the luxury surrounding him and grows proud and arrogant, forgetting where he was from. This work warns us to be humble, no matter how profound our success. We also learn from Pip that morality and loyalty are important, no matter where we are in the social order.
The following classic tale is a more radical, modern take on success. Love her or hate her, Ayn Rand excelled at telling tales of characters that readers, well, love or hate. Howard Roark, in The Fountainhead, is precisely such a character. Cold, aloof, and arrogant from the start, he uses his uncompromising brilliance to rise from being a construction worker to a wealthy and influential architect, despite criticism from all sides. A testament to hard work and the individual will, Howard Roark has provided a model for many ambitious people ever since the book's publication—just be prepared for your friends to stop answering your phone calls.
For our fourth recommendation, we rewind the clock to Victorian England with Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. This story differs from our others in that Jane does not rise to wealth and standing due to her hard work or success; rather, she does it through finding love with the right person. However, to believe that she does not earn her success would be to misunderstand the novel. Jane teaches us that while there are moments in our lives that can catapult us to a higher social status, those moments are won with heart, sincerity, and understanding. Jane learns and changes throughout the tale, but she retains the goodness that makes her who she is, which leads to her reward.
The Count of Monte Cristo
The final book in our list combines nearly all our heroes into one: The Count of Monte Cristo. Edmond Dantes is a good, kind person who is betrayed and suffers terribly by the one person he considers to be his closest friend. Instead of accepting his fate, he uses his experiences to learn, grow, and overcome his challenges, emerging as a wealthy, powerful individual. Like Roark, he is single-minded and uncompromising, but like Gatsby, he never forgets where he came from. He rises obscurity to a position of comfortable, almost arrogant, power; however, like Jane, he tries to balance his good nature with the events around him. But if you decide to inspire yourself based on Dantes, pick another motivation besides revenge.
Rags-to-riches tales remind us that it is possible to change our fortunes through luck or hard work, but usually both. However, their real power lies in the idea that Booker hinted at: in each of us is an "exceptional" person waiting to emerge. Grab one of these books, lose yourself in it for a few hours, and encourage the exceptional in yourself.
The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker, 2004.
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