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Literature Study GuidesRagtimePart 1 Chapter 1 Summary

Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime | Part 1, Chapter 1 | Summary



The novel opens in New Rochelle, a suburb outside New York City, in 1906, and introduces the audience to a wealthy white family living there. After making a fortune selling patriotic paraphernalia, Father bought a large house where he lives with Mother, The Little Boy, Mother's Younger Brother, and Grandfather.

The biggest news story is that the eccentric millionaire Harry K. Thaw is headed to trial for murdering architect Stanford White, whom he caught having an affair with his wife, model Evelyn Nesbit. The story is particularly interesting to Mother's Younger Brother, who is in love with Evelyn. The Little Boy is less interested in the news, preferring to read up on Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist. The Little Boy hopes to see Houdini's show while it is in town; just as The Little Boy is thinking about this, Houdini's car crashes into the bushes outside his front door. The family invites Houdini inside while his car is being fixed, and they have a pleasant conversation. Just before Houdini leaves, The Little Boy ominously tells him, "Warn the Duke."


The opening chapter of the novel sets the scene: It's 1906, a time when "trains and steamers and trolleys moved [people] from one place to another," women carried parasols and wore corsets, little boys wore sailor suits, and vaudeville circuits were popular. The narrator is not identified, but many critics believe he is an adult version of The Little Boy looking back on his life. (The narrator mentions Houdini died 50 years earlier, yet Houdini is alive in the text.) However, later in the novel the narrator has access to characters' thoughts and motivations, suggesting he is omniscient or perhaps simply imagining history. This would be fitting, given Doctorow's penchant for mixing historical fact and fiction in his novels.

The narrator describes a very specific New York—one in which, "There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants." Later in the novel, readers are introduced to black and immigrant characters who also live in New York. This not only suggests the segregation of New York at the time, but it also creates a sense of innocence. For the narrator, everything is white and pure and easy. There simply are no "Negroes" or immigrants. The narrator lives in an uncomplicated, conflict-free bubble that is about to burst.

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