Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Course Hero. "Ragtime Study Guide." March 13, 2017. Accessed June 26, 2022. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Ragtime/.


Course Hero, "Ragtime Study Guide," March 13, 2017, accessed June 26, 2022, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Ragtime/.

Ragtime | Character Analysis



Father is a wealthy, white upper-class man who takes comfort in traditional gender roles, strict social expectations, and segregation. While Mother changes with the times, Father remains rigidly resolute in his ways despite many opportunities to grow. He appreciates feeling needed and enjoys taking revenge on those who disrespect him; for example, he takes pleasure in making Mother cry and in helping the police hunt for Coalhouse. He is concerned with his legacy and with keeping up appearances to maintain his neighbors' respect; therefore, anything scandalous or out of the ordinary deeply disturbs him.


Coalhouse's Walker, Jr.'s primary purpose is to highlight race relations at the time of the novel's setting. A successful ragtime musician and educated black man, Coalhouse presents himself with a confidence many white people, including Father, find unnerving. Coalhouse demands to be treated with respect, and his pride and sense of justice prevent him from backing down when Conklin attacks him. After Sarah's death leaves him heartbroken, he throws himself single-mindedly into his fight for justice. Coalhouse's righteous anger notwithstanding, society remembers him as a violent maniac and killer.


At the novel's start, Mother is a traditional upper-class woman who fulfills every gender expectation beautifully, but as the novel progresses and she finds herself in new situations, traditional female roles no longer satisfy her. While Father is away she thrives in a business role, awakens her sexuality, and forms a deep bond with a black woman and her baby. When Father returns, Mother realizes she is no longer in love with him. Late in the novel, Mother embraces her creative, independent side and marries an exciting, artistic man.

Younger Brother

At the opening of the novel, Younger Brother is a depressed, aimless young man who ties the entire value of his life to his relationship with Evelyn Nesbit. When she dumps him he is devastated and suicidal. Through Emma Goldman's guidance, Younger Brother channels his heartbreak into idealistic rage, first joining Coalhouse's fight against injustice and later joining the Mexican Revolution. Unlike the rest of his family, Younger Brother not only recognizes injustice in society, but he also stands up to it, however reckless his behavior may be.


Tateh embodies the American dream. He arrives in America with nothing but talent and an industrious spirit, works long hours in terrible conditions to support his family, and takes risks and chases his dream of a better life. At first he is full of idealism and hope, but as his hard life wears on, he becomes disillusioned and laments that America won't "let me breathe." Eventually, his talent and determination pay off and he begins making his first entrepreneurial leaps. To symbolize his new life, he reinvents himself as the Baron Ashkenazy. The reinvention also highlights the need of anyone outside of white, male culture to reinvent themselves in order to find success. Tateh must reinvent his identity and efface his Jewish heritage.


Evelyn is regarded as a prostitute by Emma Goldman because she uses her beauty and sexuality to get what she wants from men. Deep down Evelyn is disturbed and lonely, having survived a lifetime of abuse in exchange for wealth and fame. Like many other characters in the novel, Evelyn is concerned with her legacy and feels she has missed out on things, particularly being a mother; this manifests itself in unhealthy relationships, such as her obsession with The Little Girl. By the end of the novel, Evelyn has lost everything—love, wealth, and any hope of happiness—and she slips into obscurity.

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