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Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


Why did E.L Doctorow choose to name the novel Ragtime?

Ragtime is a style of music that grew in popularity at the turn of the 20th century, the time period in which the novel is set. Ragtime was the first type of music to alter rhythm. Before ragtime, music was relatively straightforward: on the piano both hands followed the same up-and-down beat. In ragtime, one hand follows a traditional marching beat while the other hand plays creative riffs with seemingly contrasting syncopation. Ragtime is a transitional style from straightforward, traditional beats to the musical "lawlessness" of jazz, which became popular in the 1920s, yet another example of the transition from "old world" to "new world." Music that tests tradition's boundaries and ushers listeners into a completely new musical outlook is an ideal metaphor for the fast-changing society in Ragtime.

What lessons can readers learn from Evelyn's fate in Ragtime?

When readers last see Evelyn, she has received her divorce settlement money (far less than she had hoped for), and as Emma Goldman predicted, she spends it meaninglessly, unhappy and alone. "Listlessly she doled out her hard-earned fortune. The public never knew this because she insisted on anonymity. She had no joy." For her entire life Evelyn values money alone as the key to freedom. She stops at nothing to get and stay rich, inflicting more and more pain on herself in the process. When she receives her "freedom," however, she remains miserable. By the end of the novel, she has lost her looks and disappeared into anonymity, pointing to the lessons that neither beauty nor money brings lasting satisfaction or meaning.

What lesson can readers learn from J.P. Morgan's Egyptian experiences in Ragtime?

In Ragtime, successful financier J.P. Morgan "knew as no one else the cold and barren reaches of unlimited success." As the wealthiest man in America, Morgan can arrange "a loan to the United States Government that had saved it from bankruptcy. He had single-handedly stopped the panic of 1907" by arranging for the importation of a massive amount of gold bullion. Yet despite his success, he feels alone in the world. He latches on to the idea of reincarnation, believing he was once an Egyptian pharaoh; this (to his mind) explains his success and superiority, and it fuels hopes he will be reincarnated again and return as a leader among men. He is so sure of this that he sleeps in a pyramid overnight, waiting for the gods to speak to him, but he becomes disoriented, pacing "from the west to the east, from the north to the south, though he didn't know which was which." His experiences are a clear lesson in hubris.

Does Coalhouse receive justice in E.L Doctorow's Ragtime?

Coalhouse's demands are met when Whitman arranges for Chief Conklin to come out of hiding and restore the Model T to its original state. Coalhouse knows he will never be left alone as a free man, so his fight for justice transforms into something bigger than justice in his own life. He brings attention to America's racism and forces society to acknowledge that it exists. "The Ford stood as tangible proof of the black man's grievances." When his demands are met, he achieves his goal of making the "power" recognize him as a man. He then can give up his life, knowing he will be remembered as a martyr rather than a villain; "To get justice Coalhouse Walker was ready to have it done to him."

How does Coalhouse's character change in E.L Doctorow's Ragtime?

When the reader first meets Coalhouse Walker, he is a talented and confident pianist who simply wants to live a quiet life with his family, Sarah and their baby. He is willing to work for what he wants and prove himself to his betrothed. While he is not directly concerned with social causes, he doesn't back down from subtle racism; "[Father] did not intend to be rude—coon songs was what they were called. But the pianist responded with a tense shake of the head." When Coalhouse's car is damaged, he follows the law by making complaints, alerting authorities, and trying to press charges. When Sarah dies, however, Coalhouse realizes injustice is not his alone to suffer—all black people suffer it. He transforms emotionally and physically into a revolutionary, shaving his head as "a ritualistic grooming for the final battle."

What opposing views of racial integration are portrayed in Ragtime?

The most prominent view of racial integration is voiced by Booker T. Washington, a historical figure fictionalized in the novel. Washington believed black Americans should earn equality through hard work, trustworthiness, and service. He believed if black Americans were likable enough, white Americans would treat them as equals. Coalhouse initially embodies this view after the racist attack. He calmly and politely follows the law, which gets him nowhere. Historically, Washington's views divided the black community, with the opposition arguing such views supported white supremacy and asserting black Americans had to demand equality. Coalhouse embodies this mentality after Sarah's death, and this is how Coalhouse finally receives justice.

What is disturbing about Evelyn's rise as "America's first sex goddess" in Ragtime?

During Thaw's trial for the murder of Stanford White, the narrator says of Evelyn, "Her testimony created the first sex goddess in American history." This is disturbing because Evelyn's testimony covers not only her rape at age 15 but also how news of this drove her jealous husband to kill her lover—not because of the rape itself but because another man had her first. Evelyn's elevation to "sex goddess" highlights the novel's (and perhaps society's) fascination with sex and violence. Sex between the traditional Mother and Father is depicted as boring and unpleasant. Younger Brother, when spurned by Evelyn, channels his sexual desires into making bombs. In prison, Thaw flaps his naked penis at Houdini to intimidate him. The disturbing relationship is alluded to in the novel's opening pages: "Across America sex and death were barely distinguishable."

What is The Little Girl's name in Ragtime, and what is its significance?

In Chapter 12, Tateh and The Little Girl escape New York on a train bound for Boston. "They were the only passengers. Sha, he said to her. Close your eyes." This statement has led critics to assume Sha is The Little Girl's name, although she is never addressed this way again. The name Sha has American origins and means "combination (blending)," which dovetails with the novel's themes, or "beautiful," which is fitting for the character. However it seems unlikely Doctorow would name an allegorical character. In Yiddish, Tateh's mother tongue, "sha" also means "keep quiet," which makes sense in the scene; Tateh is urging his exhausted daughter to rest. Doctorow's omission of italics, typically used in literature to notate foreign words, adds to the confusion.

In Ragtime, what symbolism can be found in Tateh's silhouettes?

Silhouettes capture a moment in time, or at least a representation of a moment in time. When Evelyn is wooing The Little Girl, she sits for her silhouette, cutting many times, but never captures the relationship she is looking for. "Over a period of two weeks the old man executed a hundred and forty silhouette portraits of Evelyn ... Then Evelyn asked for double portraits of herself and the little girl." When their relationship falls apart, the silhouettes end up in the trash, as if they were never made. Later Tateh moves on to develop the flip book and work on motion pictures. This transition supports the novel's theme of changing technology and the constant movement of history, while also supporting the idea that time is not fluid. Rather, Doctorow suggests, it is a series of very short bursts of energy, which when viewed together give the illusion of movement. The process is much like the still pictures that, when viewed quickly, create a flipbook or film.

How are the Esquimos portrayed in E.L Doctorow's Ragtime?

Peary's relationship with the Esquimos he hired for his Arctic expedition highlight the racism and appropriation so prevalent at the time. Every description of the Esquimos is negative; "They're children and they have to be treated like children," Peary says. He describes positive Esquimo traits as "loyalty and obedience, roughly the same virtues one sought in the dogs." Although Father is disturbed by Peary's racism, he also takes part, noting, "[The Esquimos] were not discrete in their intercourse" and describing one woman as "the filthy toothless Eskimo woman with the flat brow and the eyes pressed upwards by her cheekbones." These instances of racism highlight white people's sense of superiority over anyone different. The descriptions of Esquimos are on a par with those of every other non-European male, including Coalhouse and his family; they are objects, children, animals. They are, however, useful, just as slaves were useful.

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