The Ragman's Daughter

by Alan Sillitoe
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 840

As Tony, the narrator of the story, is leaving the warehouse where he works as a cheese loader, the police question him about a suitcase that he is carrying out. It is empty, as it happens—returned by a friend who had borrowed it and had been hoping to keep it for himself.

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This short opening episode, embellished with some pithy references to the police, economically establishes that Tony and his workmates are no respecters of private property and that the police are their common enemy. Tony elaborates his attitude toward the law in a comic account of cheese stealing and of the relish with which he and his family savor the stolen food, thus revealing himself as a married man with a poorly paid job and with a history of lawbreaking.

He then looks back to his childhood and explains his development as a habitual thief, starting with his experience in the infants’ school when, sensing something morally wrong with the idea of a “buying and selling” lesson, he pocketed the token coins without detection or punishment. Subsequent childish experiments taught him that, although “money was trouble,” it was safer to steal money than things, and that it was best to keep silent. Petty thieving soon became a way of life.

Tony’s account of the delight with which he used to plunge the goods he had stolen into the river demonstrates his contempt for possessions and consumerism and, by implication, for an unjust and hypocritical society. He expresses his notions of an ideal society, in which everyone is equally provided for and equally treated, in the only terms with which he is familiar: like a prison, but with everyone free.

The evolution of his antiauthoritarian philosophy is essential to an understanding of his relationship with Doris, whom, in the recollected part of the narrative, he meets at a fish-and-chip shop, and who agrees to accompany him on his thieving “expeditions” (her word). Doris, who is still at school, has no need to steal; her father is a prosperous scrap merchant. She does it “for kicks.”

From their first joint expedition, Tony recognizes Doris as the ideal partner-in-crime. Unlike the lads who have occasionally joined him, she is deft, quiet, and efficient. The excitement of the theft is transformed into sexual excitement: Tony is in love.

The quality of his love is highlighted in a dramatic description of Doris’s arrival on horseback at the backyard of his run-down street, to the astonishment of the neighbors. Doris, “all clean and golden-haired on that shining horse,” as he recalls in a later part of the story, symbolizes Tony’s aspirations for a freer lifestyle—something of the reverse, perhaps, of the knight in shining armor whisking the lady away in traditional legend.

Tony and Doris get into the habit of depositing the goods they steal in back gardens or through mailboxes, to give the finders happy surprises. With his accumulation of stolen money, Tony buys a motorcycle and whisks Doris off for rides in the industry-scarred countryside—a token of his dream of a shared country life with her.

The sequence of successful expeditions, in which their love is consummated with mounting passion, leads to a heady climax, which takes place in the storeroom of a shoe shop they have broken into. Inching his way around in the dark, Tony finds the till and fills his pockets with bank notes.

Suddenly Doris switches on the lights. She tries on shoe after shoe, tossing them across the room as she rejects them, while Tony acts as her wild and willing shop assistant. It is a gesture of defiance, a consummation of “living for kicks.” When Tony, sensing danger, switches the lights off, the darkness brings them back to reality. With the inevitable arrival of a police officer, Tony’s ability to ensure that Doris escapes and that the bank notes are “posted” in the mailbox of a nearby house before he is arrested shows that his code of morality can be sustained even at the moment of crisis.

During three years at Borstal (a reform institution for young offenders), he hears nothing from Doris and is tortured by doubt about whether she—and the liberating future she represents—will still be there when he is released. The news, on his release, that she has been married, has given birth to his son, and has been killed with her husband in a motorcycle crash is a mortal blow to his aspirations. It sends him on a senseless thieving trip that lands him back in jail. In the last incident of the recollected narrative, he glimpses his son, playing in the woods with Doris’s father—a poignant reminder of what might have been.

This brings Tony back to the present and explains why, despite his challenging attitude toward life, he has become a conventional family man and has “gone straight”—except that, like his workmates, he keeps himself, his wife, and his two children eating well by stealing food from the warehouse.

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