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Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


How does the changing family structure in Ragtime reflect a changing society?

At the opening of Ragtime, the narrator lives in a world where "There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants." New Rochelle is highly segregated with strict social codes and expectations. However a few chapters later, the reader is introduced to a black family and an immigrant family. As the novel progresses, the lives of these three families intersect and intertwine. By the end of the novel, the three families have fractured and come together as one; Mother marries Tateh, and they will raise Sarah's son together. The narrator's views of a completely segregated society change alongside the fundamental family structure. This new family presented at the end of the novel symbolizes America's melting pot and signals the transition from the "old world" in Part 1, Chapter 1 to the "new world" at the novel's close.

What is significant about The Little Boy's call to "Warn the Duke" in Part 1, Chapter 1 of Ragtime?

Many believe The Little Boy is the narrator of Ragtime, which casts him in the unique role of history's storyteller. This is fitting given that The Little Boy "treasured anything discarded" and accepted stories as "images of truth." The novel is narrated 50 years after Houdini's death, which means The Little Boy in Part 1, Chapter 1 is now a middle-aged man looking back on American history. When The Little Boy tells Houdini to "warn the Duke," he is referring to Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, who will meet with Houdini eight years later. The Little Boy is issuing a warning about the impending horrors of world war eight years before World War I breaks out. Ragtime is interested in the delineation and cyclic nature of history. It is fitting, then, to give a character that symbolizes the childlike innocence and wonder the ability reflect on the future and the past.

How is life for immigrants in New York portrayed in Chapter 3 of Ragtime?

Immigrants in New York at the turn of the century often faced existences as tough as or tougher than what they left behind. Immigration officers were ruthless and strict; "[They] changed names they couldn't pronounce and tore people from their families, consigning to a return voyage old folks, people with bad eyes, riffraff and also those who looked insolent." Immigrants in Ragtime such Tateh and the Little Girl lived in horrific tenement houses, worked menial jobs for low pay, and were despised by many New Yorkers, who believed "They had no honor ... They stole. They drank. They raped their own daughters. They killed each other casually." Immigrants were vulnerable and exploited, as seen in Mother's sexual assault and Tateh's need to tie his daughter to him so she isn't stolen. The clothesline also represents one of the novel's motifs of humans as objects or possessions.

In Chapter 4 of Ragtime, why is the scene of Theodore Dreiser and his chair significant?

In Chapter 4 the narrator describes "the morose novelist Theodore Dreiser" turning his desk again and again, looking to "align it properly. For a moment he thought the chair was aligned, but then he decided it was not ... Through the night Dreiser turned his chair in circles seeking the proper alignment." Throughout the novel the narrator points out various scenes in which characters struggle to align significant moments within history, and Dreiser's attempt to align his chair symbolize this struggle. "Old world" thinkers also struggle to align their views in a quickly changing society as perspectives and outlooks change. The novel itself presents historical events small and large from a variety of different viewpoints and elevates even small actions to greater universal significance.

How does Thaw's treatment in prison represent "old world" thinking in Ragtime?

The "old world" thinking in Ragtime places rich white men at the top of society's hierarchy. Despite the fact that Thaw murdered another man—a famous man at that—he receives special treatment in prison. "Thaw was not really fond of the jail fare so they brought in his meals from Delmonico's. He liked to feel clean so they passed along a change of clothes delivered each morning to the jail doors by his valet. He disliked Negroes so they made sure no Negro prisoner was lodged near his cell." Thaw's treatment contrasts sharply with Sarah's; despite suffering life-threatening injuries, Sarah is thrown in a cold cell and ignored.

Why is Houdini portrayed as being afraid of technology in Ragtime?

Houdini is obsessed with his legacy. In Chapter 5 the narrator says, "Houdini had high inchoate ambition and every development in technology made him restless. On the shabby confines of a stage he could create wonder and awe"—yet Houdini knows his magic is merely an illusion. He doesn't really escape from prison, for example; he gives the illusion of escape by hiding keys, wires, and tools on his body to pick locks. Real technology, like the flight of an airplane, is a genuine marvel that changes the world. Houdini can feign escape and leave people awestruck with his trickery, but technology offers true freedom and inspires genuine awe.

In Ragtime, how does Doctorow deride wealthy people's attitude toward poverty, as exemplified in the statement, "It became fashionable to honor the poor"?

Chapter 6 of Ragtime describes luxurious parties in which "ballrooms were decorated to look like mines with beams, iron tracks and miners lamps ... Guests smoked cigar butts offered to them on silver trays. Minstrels performed in blackface." Make-believe poverty is entertainment for guests who, "came dressed in rags and ate from tin plates and drank from chipped mugs." The very rich use the plight of the poor for their amusement, yet they do nothing to improve poor people's lives. Stanford White, for example, has no interest in redesigning immigrant tenements. Throughout the novel, New Yorkers perpetuate racist rumors and society continues to value rich white men's experiences above all else.

Why is appearance so important to Tateh in Ragtime?

Tateh immigrates to America in hopes of building a better life for his family, but he is forced into an impoverished existence in a New York tenement. Despite his abject poverty, however, he and the Little Girl are always clean and well groomed. To Tateh, being poor and looking poor are two different things, and he maintains pride in his appearance. "Tateh furiously brushed his trousers and jacket and soft cap before going downstairs. He tied a bow tie around his frayed collar. He made sure the Little Girl wore her clean pinafore." Poverty is a form of imprisonment, but Tateh refuses to accept it. He aspires to more and dresses for the life he wants. At the end of the novel Tateh has completely reinvented himself, becoming a baron in fine clothes.

How are the characters of Evelyn and Mameh in Ragtime similar?

Both Evelyn and Mameh are victims of predatory male sexual desires. Evelyn is raped and beaten at 15, but she goes on to marry her abuser because he is wealthy; as the daughter of a poor single mother in a coal-mining town, she has no better options. Evelyn continues to use her sexuality and beauty to ensure her financial future, even lying in court for her husband. "She had agreed to testify in his behalf for the sum of two hundred thousand dollars." Similarly, Mameh allows her sexuality to be exploited for her family's financial gain. "One day with two weeks' rent due she let [her boss] have his way on a cutting table." Although both Evelyn and Mameh are assaulted by predatory men, the women are blamed, called prostitutes, and Mameh is abandoned by Tateh.

Why is Evelyn drawn to The Little Girl in Doctorow's Ragtime?

The first thing Evelyn notices about The Little Girl is that she is beautiful. "The girl had straight black hair that fitted her head like a helmet. She had olive skin and eyes so brown they were black ... She was the most beautiful child Evelyn had ever seen." The Little Girl is also abysmally poor, so it's likely Evelyn is drawn to her as a reflection of herself. Evelyn was, of course, the very beautiful daughter of a very poor coal mining family essentially "sold off" to a rich and abusive man. Ragtime is concerned with history repeating itself, and Evelyn steps into The Little Girl's life as if to stop her own history of repeating itself.

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