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Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


How do fashion and appearance change over the course of Ragtime?

Fashion and appearance change drastically over the course of the novel. In the "old world," everyone wears white. Following gender roles, men wear suits and women wear corsets. Men eat copious amounts to display their social rank: "The consumption of food was a sacrament of success. A man who carried great stomach before him was thought to be in his prime." To remain attractive to these stout men, "Women went into hospitals to die of burst bladders [from their corsets], collapsed lungs, overtaxed hearts, and meningitis of the spine." As time passes, men become leaner to show their physical strength, and women discard their tight clothing and embrace their newfound freedoms.

In Ragtime, how does Emma Goldman feel about Evelyn's fame in the wake of the trial?

Emma Goldman is disappointed in Evelyn's trial fame because it perpetuates the ideal of an unattainable woman. Papers sell wildly, not because of the horrors of Evelyn's story but because of her beautiful face. Readers know Evelyn was born poor and married rich, which seems an easy way to become famous; they apparently miss the warning that women like Evelyn are "used for the pleasure of the wealthy." Goldman realizes that the poor allow themselves to be exploited by the rich, "by being persuaded to identify with them," an exploitation to which Evelyn's fame contributes. Now a laborer who might have aimed to elevate his life through hard work and education looks at Evelyn's photo in the newspaper and "dreams not of justice but of being rich."

Why does Houdini obsess about the sandhog in Ragtime?

Houdini becomes obsessed with a sandhog who survives the terrible explosion that claims the lives of his colleagues because the sandhog has escaped death while Houdini himself simply plays at doing so. Houdini has made a name for himself as "an escapologist," but his act symbolizes a false escape; "For all his achievements he was a trickster, an illusionist, a mere magician." Houdini is still trapped by self-doubt and insecurity. He is desperate to unlock the secret of real escape. "I want to know what he did to get to the surface," he tells the sandhog's family. "He must have done something. I would like to know, it means a lot to me to know." He spends the rest of his life struggling toward this understanding.

In Ragtime, how does Father change during his time in the Arctic?

When Father returns home from the Arctic in Chapter 14 of Ragtime, he's transformed in some ways and unchanged in others. He is emaciated. "He was shocked by the outlines of his body, the ribs and clavicle, white-skinned and vulnerable, the bony pelvis." His physical change symbolizes his loss of power at home as well. He is no longer the man of the house. His son is older and more mature. His wife has competently run the business in his absence. In many ways, Father's return mirrors the changes soldiers faced after WWII, in which the wife had become the head of the family; the economic independence of women rendered their dependence upon men irrelevant and their sexual fidelity questionable. Additionally for Father, the house is filled with technology he doesn't understand; everyone in the family "treated him like a convalescent." Despite everything that has changed around him, Father expects his "old world" mentalities to prevail, an attitude that causes conflict for him later in the novel.

In Ragtime, how does Doctorow contrast the characters of Father and Younger Brother?

Father and Younger Brother represent "old world" and "new world" thinking. As a recipient of the automatically assumed superiority of being a white man, Father would be happy if everything in his life and in society could plod on unchangingly. He is blind to the unhappiness of those around him (including Mother, Coalhouse, and Sarah). Although he had "always thought of himself as progressive," Father doesn't really want anything to change. Younger Brother, on the other hand, is ready to embrace change at every turn and is eager to join causes that facilitate social change, particularly if they involve violence. Father and Younger Brother's differences are apparent in their many fights, but they first come to the fore when Father returns home from the Arctic and sees what Younger Brother has been working on in his absence. Younger Brother has invented the cherry bomb, which will later develop into more powerful bombs. "Father suggested that perhaps the charge was too powerful and might lead to injury." Father claims to want progress but doesn't want to ruffle any feathers by creating it. In contrast, Younger Brother is looking to make a big bang, both literally and figuratively.

What role does Grandfather play in E.L Doctorow's Ragtime?

Grandfather is an almost-forgotten character in Ragtime. He is old, sickly, and near death. However in Chapter 15 the reader learns he was a Latin professor and can speak Latin fluently. He tells The Little Boy ancient stories by Ovid, and the boy listens eagerly. "Grandfather's stories proposed to him that the forms of life were volatile and that everything in the world could as easily be something else." These stories of transformation point to the importance of history, which—as the novel shows—cycles over and over. One can't leave the past behind when marching toward the future. It is important to absorb the lessons of history rather than forget them.

What is the importance of the Lawrence riots in Ragtime?

Tateh and his fellow mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, rise up against short pay in Chapter 16 of Ragtime. This strike is yet another example of America's changing society. With technological advances, individual workers begin to lose their value. Henry Ford makes matters worse with his assembly line that will ensure "not only that the parts of the finished product be interchangeable, but that the men who build the products be themselves interchangeable parts." The workers in Lawrence try to fight against this change, but progress marches steadily forward. A poignant and symbolic image of Tateh clinging to the accelerating train "like a man in prison begging to be set free" ends the chapter.

How does E.L Doctorow's Ragtime address workers' unions?

Ragtime addresses the unionization of workers only once, during the mill workers' strike in Chapter 16. Representatives from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) come from New York to help the mill workers because they know "how to run a strike." These representatives form a committee to help organize pickets, promote their message of nonviolence, and arrange for children's passage to foster homes. Although this organization is ultimately helpful in winning the strike, Tateh realizes the win won't help better the lives of workers: "But what has [the I.W.W.] won? A few more pennies in wages." Unionization gives a voice to oppressed workers but ultimately keeps them chained to the very system that exploits them.

How does E.L Doctorow use repetition in his novel Ragtime?

Events are repeated throughout the novel. Examples include Evelyn and her portraits, Coalhouse and his Sunday visits, plays in a baseball game, and Ford's assembly line production. For some characters, repetition brings a sense of calm, order, and meaning. However other examples of repetition suggest meaninglessness: Houdini's escape acts, Peary's search for the pole, J.P. Morgan's pacing at the tomb, Theodore Dreiser's repositioning his desk. These examples carry more emotional weight and suggest—as does the novel's title—that creativity is the way toward progress. Repetition on a small scale also echoes repetition on a much larger one—the repetition of history.

In Ragtime, why does society blame Coalhouse for his situation?

At the turn of the century, slavery had been abolished but segregation was still alive and well. There were strict expectations for how a black man like Coalhouse should behave. Nevertheless Coalhouse shows pride in himself and his accomplishments, as seen in his fancy car, his clothing, and his way of speaking. At first Mother and Father view these as signifiers that Coalhouse is trying to elevate himself, which they appreciate; "He is well-spoken and conducts himself a gentleman. I see nothing wrong with [inviting him in]." When Coalhouse asks to be treated as an equal, however, white men use Coalhouse's "pride" against him. For men who feel threatened by the concept of a black man as their equal, "pride" is a glaring fault. "Does he have anyone but himself to blame for Sarah's death?" Father bellows, "Anything but his damnable nigger pride?"

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