How the Other Half Lives

Topics: How the Other Half Lives, The Reader, Jacob Riis Pages: 5 (2046 words) Published: May 5, 2011
An Analysis of How The Other Half Lives
The massive overcrowding in New York was epitomized by the tenements, which by 1880 housed over 600,000 people within 24,000. This awful statistic was one of many declared by Jacob Riis in his How The Other Half Lives. His work, influenced by other tenement reform advocates, synthesized the cause for reform together into this journal to convince those who were blind to the problem to want to also help. This essay will evaluate the methods and effectiveness of Riis's novel to convince the reader to be moved to help the overcrowding issue in New York. Throughout the journal, Riis plays on the ideals of other reform groups to bring them into this cause. The "problem of the children…makes one feel aghast," (p 135), because most people feel more compelled to help the future of their society. Riis capitalizes on this common morality. Of course, these children had no choice in their living situation. Of course, it was awful that their numbers were so high. Of course, people want to help. Most, however, don't know how to help, and here Riis was, providing an outlet. Thus, by harnessing human compassion, Riis's propaganda hit right on the mark. He also provided hope for the children, which makes people want to help even more: Even though the "thousand and one charities… one way or another reach the [children]," there is still a need for more. However, the "silver lining" is that "hearts and hands will be found to do it in ever-increasing measure." (all from page 146). Women of the time were still struggling to gain more rights. Among these rights were equal pay and job opportunities. For the women stuck in low-wage jobs with next to no chance of improving their status, the tenements were cheap places to live. Riis uses the currently rising feminist movement to appeal for change in this aspect; however, more could be said about women's rights than changing the housing situation, one failure in his novel. Despite this failure, he does a good job of providing justification for why women resort to prostitution. Instead of condemning them like others habitually did, he provided compassion and sympathy, knowing that "starvation had driven them to the one door at which the pride of the American-born girl will not permit her to knock, [as] poverty be the price of her independence." (page 178) Because of this compassion, Riis can gain the support of the female population that would be able to contribute to the reformation of the tenements. Riis makes a point of appealing to the prohibitionist movement at the time, easily providing countless examples of the evils of alcohol. The number of saloons in the area of the tenements was "easily ten saloons to every church." (page 159) This horrible statistic is easily moving to Christian prohibitionist. Riis mentions these saloons, which "persuade [tenements] that within its doors only is refuge" (page 159), to ignite the spark within Prohibitionists that hate and fear the evils of alcohol. By doing this, he enlists yet another group to help the cause. Riis also set up his book in a way that dragged the readers into the atrocities of the tenement life. How the Other Half Lives provides photographic evidence to give the reader actual image of the lives inside the tenements. Though ignorance is bliss, these pictures do not allow the imagination to sugar coat the problems. Instead, they force the reader to see the cramped housing, the forlorn children, and utter despair felt by the tenements. Because most of the audience would have been Christian, Riis hoped to play into the morality that was assumed to be present in all of them. The raw power of these photographs also help to promote each point that Riis makes in each chapter. For example, the diagram on page 12 shows how one building could allow absurd numbers of people to reside there by creating tiny rooms, most without light. And, as already mentioned, the numerous pictures of children invoke easy sympathy...
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