Course Hero Logo

Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

Get the eBook on Amazon to study offline.

Buy on Amazon Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "Ragtime Study Guide." Course Hero. 13 Mar. 2017. Web. 9 Feb. 2023. <>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2017, March 13). Ragtime Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved February 9, 2023, from

In text

(Course Hero, 2017)



Course Hero. "Ragtime Study Guide." March 13, 2017. Accessed February 9, 2023.


Course Hero, "Ragtime Study Guide," March 13, 2017, accessed February 9, 2023,

Ragtime | Motifs



Many characters in Ragtime feel trapped by social, gender, and racial expectations and desire to escape, transform, or reinvent themselves. This is seen in Mother's transition from traditional housewife to romantic free spirit, Tateh's reinvention from immigrant to film baron, and Coalhouse's transformation into a civil rights vigilante. The motif of escape is also found in J.P. Morgan's obsession with reincarnation as a mode of escaping death and Houdini's very literal practice of escaping death though his illusions; "His life was absurd. He went all over the world accepting all kinds of bondage and escaping. He was roped to a chair. He escaped. He was chained to a ladder. He escaped. He was handcuffed, his legs were put in irons, he was tied up in a strait jacket and put in a locked cabinet. He escaped. He escaped from bank vaults, nailed-up barrels, sewn mailbags." Escaping constraints, both literal and figurative, underscores the entire novel through the influence of vaudeville—in which performers escaped gender constraints with men performing as women, and women performing as men—as well as the influence of ragtime music, which broke free of music's traditional classic constraints to create something unique and beautiful. Those who were unable to escape the past through transformation or reinvention (like J.P. Morgan and Father) were left behind, trapped forever in the "old world."


The era in which Ragtime is set is between the Post-Civil War era and the Progressive Era, meaning the world was full of new hope and change, most notably with technology. In the novel, the reader sees Model T cars racing down the production line, fireworks being turned into bombs, and silhouette cut-outs evolving into feature-length films. With the rise of industrialization and technology, the face of America changed as hundreds of thousands of immigrants poured into the cities searching for factory work. Industrialized companies, like Ford and the mills where Tateh works, looked to exploit this new labor by offering low wages and poor conditions, "[Ford ensured] not only that the parts of the finished product be interchangeable, but that the men who build the products be themselves interchangeable parts." In this way, Ragtime showcases both the good and bad of technological advance. While industrialization led to great leaps of advancement and opportunity, it also fostered deep social unrest and exploitation.


Throughout the novel, characters claim things that are not theirs, whether through relationships (Evelyn with The Little Girl), theft (Morgan's collection of stolen goods and Coalhouse's subsequent takeover of Morgan's library), or cultural appropriation (Peary's treatment of the Eskimos). For many rich white Americans, status was created through consumption, even the consumption (or collection) of people. Consider how Mother's status changed when she took in Sarah and the baby, for example—Sarah's sorrow and child were things Mother collected to alter her identity rather than to actually improve Sarah's life (she never even bothered to learn Sarah's last name). The pursuit of possessions is superficial, however, as it brought little meaning to Morgan's and Father's lives. Consider Father's return from the Arctic, "He pulled Arctic treasures from his trunk ... incredible treasures in the North, but here in the parlor the embarrassing possessions of a savage. The family stood around and watched him on his knees. There was nothing he had to tell them." This heartbreaking scene highlights the novel's message that relationships rather than possessions create happiness and meaning in one's life.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about Ragtime? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!