The Alger canon is described by Carl Bode of the University of Maryland as "bouncy little books for boys" that promote "the merits of honesty, hard work, and cheerfulness in adversity." Alger "emblematized those qualities" in his heroes, he writes, and his tales are not so much about rags to riches "but, more sensibly, rags to respectability". With a moral thrust entrenched in the Protestant ethic, Alger novels emphasized that honesty, especially of the fiscal sort, was not only the best policy but the morally right policy, and temperance and smoking were to be abjured. Alger knew he wasn't writing great literature, Bode explains, but he was providing boys with the sort of material they enjoyed reading: formulaic novels "whose aim was to teach young boys how to succeed by being good" and which featured "active and enterprising" boy heroes sustained by "an endearing sense of humor" even in the most trying of situations. Dialogue was "brisk" in the Alger novel and "when good disputed with evil, good always won." Generally, a "malicious young snob" and a "middle-aged rascal" schemed to hurt the hero's rise, and a "mysterious stranger" and a "wordly but warmhearted patron" were at hand to assure his success. Violence was kept at arm's length in the Alger novel, the tone remained "optimistic and positive", suspense was never "of the nail-biting sort", and the Alger universe was "basically benign". Bode points out that the problems of upward mobility in the Alger novel were never "insoluble", and, although luck was a major element in the Alger plot, it was never luck alone that brought the hero success but luck combined with "pluck".
Gary Scharnhorst detects six major themes in Alger's 100 plus boys' books, and decides that the major theme of Ragged Dick is the Rise to Respectability. Scharnhorst points out that Dick himself states he intends to change his way of life and "become 'spectable". Early in the book, Mr. Whitney "replaces Dick's suit with a neat one, signaling the beginning of the transformation from Ragged Dick into Richard Hunter, Esq." Scharnhorst follows Dick's progress through the tale to the moment when Dick is rewarded with a clerical position and notes that "The status of respectability, not a high salary, completes his transition from Ragged Dick to Richard Hunter." Scharnhorst writes "The recurrence in Alger's fiction of the theme of the Rise to Respectability underscores the inaccuracy of the widespread opinion that his heroes rise from rags to riches. Indeed, insofar as Alger's heroes prosper at all, they do so because they deserve prosperity, because they happily earn it with their virtue ... Alger's heroes always merit their good fortune – an idea which, like respectability, is associated only tangentially to wealth."