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Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


How does Emma Goldman buck gender expectations in Ragtime?

Women in the early 1900s were expected to conform to traditional gender roles, which meant sticking to housekeeping, homemaking, and childrearing, like Mother. They were expected to be beautiful and demure, like Evelyn, and sexually pure, like Mameh. Emma Goldman is none of these things. She is educated and outspoken, qualities that frighten "old world" men such as Father, who is alarmed to see Goldman's writings on his wife's nightstand. Goldman is not married but keeps many lovers—"I've probably slept with more men than you," she tells Evelyn in Chapter 8—and refuses to conform to society's standards of beauty, such as wearing a corset. Because of this, Goldman is seen as revolutionary and dangerous, and she is frequently arrested for "inciting a riot" due to her powerful political rhetoric. Her presence also supports the novel's reference to vaudeville, although Goldman's bending of gender expectations created significant danger, perhaps because it happens outside of an entertaining theater setting.

Why does Emma Goldman call Evelyn "triumphant" and "victorious" in Ragtime?

In Chapter 8, when Emma Goldman saves Evelyn from the melee following Goldman's political speech, the two women discuss their past relationships and lives. Calling Evelyn a "clever prostitute," Goldman says, "You accepted the conditions in which you found yourself and you triumphed. But what kind of victory has it been? The victory of a prostitute." What Goldman means is that Emma has sold herself (with sex and testimony) to Thaw, a man she doesn't love, in exchange for money. The "victory," however, is merely financial. Evelyn is desperately unhappy and unloved: "Evelyn lay back on the pillows rubbing her eyes with the heels of her hand ... She wept into the towel." After Evelyn receives her settlement money she fritters it away; after losing The Little Girl, she realizes money will no longer buy her happiness.

In Ragtime, in what ways are Emma Goldman and Evelyn similar?

Although they appear to be polar opposites, Emma Goldman, an anarchist, and Evelyn, a model, have some common traits. Both buck gender expectations; Goldman is outspoken and educated when women are expected to be demure, and Evelyn embraces her sexuality when women are expected to be chaste, even within their marriages. Both women also care deeply about how others perceive them. Evelyn adheres to beauty constraints such as corsets, which are physically uncomfortable but improve her shape; Goldman brags about her life and sexual exploits to impress Evelyn. Although Goldman claims to "pity and abhor" Evelyn, she gives her a sensual massage, suggesting the women's intimate union.

How does E.L Doctorow's Ragtime treat revolutionaries?

In a society ruled by codes, hierarchies, and gender roles, most people are just trying to fit in. "Mother suspected [The Little Boy] was a strange child ... Any indication that her son was ordinary heartened her." Although Doctorow gives some characters labels rather than names to suggest a broader identification, he focuses on characters who seek a unique legacy. To find their individuality, characters must be revolutionary. There are the literal revolutionaries (Emiliano Zapata, Younger Brother, Alexander Berkman, and Coalhouse), the social revolutionaries (Emma Goldman in politics, Evelyn in sexuality, Houdini in entertainment), and the business revolutionaries (J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford). By celebrating these individuals, Doctorow seems to suggest a revolutionary life—a memorable life—is the only life worth living.

In Ragtime, why is it significant that Sarah buries her son in the garden?

In a novel concerned with themes of reincarnation and rebirth, Sarah's son's entrance into the world is filled with symbolism. Sarah buries her unwanted baby in Mother's rose garden as if he is dead. Mother discovers the baby and digs him up. Even the initial description of the baby is similar to the description of a corpse; "Dirt was in its eyes, in its mouth. It was small and wrinkled and its eyes were closed." The baby is still bloody and attached to the umbilical cord, further strengthening birth imagery. It is fitting that the baby should be "reborn" in a garden, when life cycles through birth and death year after year.

In E.L Doctorow's Ragtime, why does Thaw taunt Houdini in prison?

When Houdini attempts to escape from the prison in Chapter 5, Thaw appears to be watching from his prison cell with awe, but then he strips off his clothes and "raising his arms in a shockingly obscene manner [thrust] his hips forward and flapped his penis between the bars." At first Thaw seems simply crazy. However Houdini thinks Thaw mocks him because he doesn't understand Houdini's art. Later it seems Thaw is asserting his social status. Although he and Houdini are equals in the prison (and perhaps even financially, given Houdini's recent successes), Thaw considers himself better than Houdini because he is "old money" and Houdini is a Jewish immigrant. Since both men are in prison and don't have access to their wallets, Thaw uses his genitals to assert his power and masculinity over Houdini.

When does Mother's character experience rebirth in Ragtime?

Mother experiences her rebirth when Father is in the Arctic. Before his departure, Mother maintains her docile, domestic role. When she finds herself on her own she realizes she is confident and capable, a realization that puts her on a path of creativity and longing that eventually pushes her into Tateh's life. The first clue to her rebirth comes when she discovers Sarah's son. She seems to age momentarily (death) before returning to her youthful appearance (rebirth); "All the bones of her face appeared to have grown and the opulently beautiful woman ... was shockingly haggard, like someone ancient." She feels "deserted by the race of males" just as she discovers another male—a baby who has also been deserted by his family.

In Chapter 9 of Ragtime, why is it significant that The Little Boy keeps his father's letter?

Father's letter from the Arctic arrives greasy and smelling of dead whale, so Mother copies the letter onto clean paper and throws the original away. As the story's history keeper, The Little Boy loves to collect discarded things, so he digs the letter out of the trash. He is obsessed with repetition and reads the letter over and over until "The grease spots on the envelope were worked into every fiber of the paper by his small hands." The sensation of putrid stink spreading through all the recorded memories is particularly apt given the novel's climax (Coalhouse's attack in Morgan's library). This scene is a subtle reminder that history must record the good and bad together. It also works as a metaphor, suggesting that after something terrible happens (Sarah's death, for example), the "stink" can seep into every fiber of a person's soul, just as the oil from the dead whale spread into every fiber of the letter.

How does Ragtime's portrayal of Peary compare with history?

Ragtime arguably downplays accusations of appropriation aimed at Commander Peary after his return from the Arctic. Many skeptics question whether he found the Arctic at all (some believe he was roughly 30 miles short of the pole) and whether he deserves the honor of having discovered it. Many historians now believe Peary used people for his own ends and then discarded them. Mathew Henson, for example, did most of the field work during their expedition, but as a black man he was excluded from the laurels. The same goes for the Esquimos, whose culture and survival skills Peary was keen to appropriate. There are also reports that Peary fathered children with Esquimo women and then abandoned the women to return home.

What clues does Ragtime give about its narrator's identity?

The narrator of Ragtime is a much-discussed topic among readers and critics. Many assert the narrator is a grown-up version of The Little Boy. When discussing Father's death in the novel's final chapter, the narrator says, "Poor Father, I see his final exploration." It is the only time the narrator uses "I," suggesting a close personal relationship with Father. The reader also knows The Little Boy treasures discarded things and is concerned with replicating history, two common traits for storytellers. The narrator has the most access to the mindsets of the New Rochelle family, with Younger Brother's diaries giving closer access to Evelyn and Emma Goldman and Mother's marriage to Tateh giving closer access to Tateh's experiences. Also, in Chapter 1 The Little Boy appears to be a clairvoyant with a connection to Houdini; however, his knowledge of Houdini, J.P. Morgan, and Henry Ford could be attributed to research, which The Little Boy also enjoys. The narration seems to shift perspective throughout the novel, leaving the narrator's identity up for debate.

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