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Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


What type of relationship does Mother have with Sarah in Ragtime?

Although Sarah lives in Mother's home and they jointly raise Sarah's child, Mother maintains a distance from Sarah; "Nobody knew Sarah's last name or thought to ask." While Mother advocates for Sarah and her child, she doesn't attend Sarah's funeral or offer condolences to Coalhouse. Nor does she honor Sarah in any way to her orphaned child. This distance highlights the social and racial divide between Mother and Sarah. After Coalhouse's attack, Mother is shocked to realize that "this impoverished uneducated black girl [could have] such absolute conviction of the way human beings ought to conduct their lives." Mother always views Sarah as far beneath her; she never considers that Sarah could have morals and principles to equal her own—a surprising attitude given Mother's role as a progressive. Mother's oversight highlights an uncomfortable reality of the equal rights fight. Many women, whether consciously or not, sought equality for themselves only. If a woman could manage it, she would become unique and special among women—although, as a wealthy white woman, Mother is already "superior" to Sarah.

In Ragtime, what does Houdini come to realize after his mother dies?

Throughout the novel, Houdini is obsessed with escape. Not the illusion of escape but true escape, like the sandhog's. When his mother dies, Houdini becomes obsessed with bridging the divide between life and death; "If it was possible to communicate with the dead he would find out." In his quest for true escape, Houdini is reborn: "Every feat enacted Houdini's desire for his dead mother. He was buried and reborn, buried and reborn." Tormented by guilt, Houdini realizes there is no escape from his real prison. No matter how advanced his shows (or technology) become, death is the inevitable end.

What does Father realize about himself at the ballgame in Ragtime?

In Chapter 30, Father takes The Little Boy to a baseball game in a desperate attempt to connect with his son after taking so little interest in him for so long. Father hoped to relive fond baseball-playing memories from his Harvard days, but he is disappointed to find most of the players are immigrants and the fans are somewhat unruly. Father realizes he isn't progressive at all, and in truth he has no desire to be. This is a turning point for him. Previously he was willing to help Coalhouse with his case, but he now relishes the idea of putting Coalhouse back in his place and restoring order—that is, going back to the "good old days" he remembers.

How does Chief Conklin feel about the reaction to Coalhouse's case in Ragtime?

Chief Conklin, the racist volunteer firefighter who leads the attack against Coalhouse and his car, feels vindicated when Coalhouse grows violent, and he hopes society sees Coalhouse as an insane criminal. As the case progresses, many in Conklin's neighborhood turn against him, demanding he be run out of town for instigating the violence. "From the beginning Conklin had been unable to understand how anyone who was white could feel for him less than the most profound admiration. The more unpopular he became the more piteous his bewilderment." Conklin, like Father, truly believes in social hierarchy and cannot imagine that society is progressing past a time when being a white man automatically meant you are better or more trustworthy than a black man. This is particularly true for Conklin given the previous history of Irish-American immigrants being viewed as second-class citizens. His ascent to superiority was only recently won. Although Father feels "demeaned" by Conklin and horrified by his "assumption of social equality," the two are quite similar in their outdated beliefs.

Why do Coalhouse's followers adopt his name in Ragtime?

Like many characters in the novel, Coalhouse is a symbol. His character and experiences symbolize the oppression of black people. His young followers, including Younger Brother in blackface, latch onto this symbolism and are "so transformed as to speak of themselves collectively as Coalhouse." Later, when Coalhouse agrees to the negotiation terms, his followers are outraged: "We always talked before, one of them said. Now you doing this. You can't, man! We all Coalhouse." In this way, Coalhouse has become a silhouette—a universal entity into which individuals can cast themselves. The followers' upset stems from believing that Coalhouse's agreement serves only Coalhouse, leaving the rest of them, and the rest of black society, to carry on the fight against racism without him.

In Ragtime, why is it fitting that Mother and Father's relationship deteriorates in Atlantic City?

When Mother and Father escape to Atlantic City, they use their white privilege to maintain a life of ease. Even though they are involved in the case against Coalhouse (Father as an informant and Mother as the guardian of Coalhouse's child), they are wealthy enough to sneak away from the drama and enjoy the seaside. Yet their escape is just an illusion. The narrator notes Mother and Father "felt they looked grand and prosperous," yet Mother experiences "momentary twinges of dislike [for Father] so fleeting she didn't even recognize what they were." As time passes Mother and Father's relationship deteriorates, and Mother has feelings for another man (Tateh). Their crumbling marriage shows it is impossible to run away from one's problems. It also highlights the dangers of stasis or the status quo. Humans, and society, need change to progress.

What is the significance of the relationship between The Little Boy and The Little Girl in Ragtime?

When their families meet in Atlantic City, The Little Boy and The Little Girl become fast friends. They spend all their time together, exploring their new surroundings and considering their futures. In one scene the two play a "burial game" in which they build sand sculptures on one other's bodies. Their relationship and the game symbolize a union of the "old world" (The Little Boy, a member of the patriarchy) and the "new world" (The Little Girl, an immigrant) to create something new. Just as Coalhouse becomes a silhouette for his followers, The Little Boy and The Little Girl become silhouettes, transforming from specific individuals to universal symbols of change. The merging of old and new is further realized when the two families unite through Mother and Tateh's marriage.

How is E.L Doctorow's Ragtime relevant to modern readers?

Although Ragtime was written in the 1960s and is set in the early 1900s, its messages about society and the cyclical nature of history are still relevant. Modern readers share the same fears and concerns as the characters—fear of death, legacy, loss of meaning, and scandal—and in some fundamental ways society has changed very little. While women have advanced in social equality, misogyny and sexism still exist. Race relations are arguably as strained today as they were 100-plus years ago. Coalhouse struggles all his life to be seen as a man, but in the end he is gunned down by police—a particularly poignant event that still resonates in modern times.

What does the Model T represent in E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime?

The Model T car holds significance for many characters in the novel, most notably Henry Ford and Coalhouse Walker. For Ford, the Model T represents the pinnacle of his success. The car is built on an assembly line—an unprecedented technological advance—which churns out a new car every six minutes. This process clearly values the machine over the interchangeable man. For Coalhouse, the Model T represents his identity. He worked hard to save money for the car and is very proud of his accomplishment. The firemen that attack Coalhouse destroy the car to shatter his identity. The firemen are used to only white men being able to afford the luxury car, so they are taken aback that a black man could own something financially out of their reach. In both of these examples, the Model T represents progress (technological and social) that many in middle-class white society resist.

How does Ragtime reinvent the genre of historical fiction?

Typically historical fiction is scrupulously researched, with historical events in the background and fictional characters in the foreground. In Ragtime, Doctorow subverts those norms by putting historical characters in the foreground of fictionalized events. J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford never met in real life, yet in an interview with The Paris Review Doctorow asserted, "Everything in Ragtime is true ... as true as I could make it. I think my vision of J.P. Morgan, for instance, is more accurate to the soul of that man than his authorized biography." Doctorow mixes historical figures and events with fictional characters and events to elevate history and create universal truths, revealing the internal dynamics of personal history and legacy. In his work, history isn't created so much as revised.

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