Literature Study GuidesRagtimePart 1 Chapter 10 Summary

Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime | Part 1, Chapter 10 | Summary



Father is working hard aboard the Roosevelt with Peary and his team. Peary lives rather extravagantly aboard the ship—he even has a player piano in his quarters. Although Peary gets all the credit for his expeditions, it is actually the Esquimos and his "Negro assistant, Mathew Henson" who do most of the difficult work. Peary and Father discover they were members of the same fraternity in college, which forms a cordial bond between them. Peary loves to describe his "system" of survival in the Arctic to Father but Father quickly realizes Peary is simply taking credit for methods the Esquimos have been using for generations. Much about the Esquimos fascinates Father, particularly that women actively engage in sex and the couples make love without discretion.

When spring arrives, the party begins their trek to "discover" the North Pole. There is much work to be done but Father struggles with a perpetually frozen heel. Peary decides he will make the journey to the North Pole alone, and despite the hard work of the rest of the team, everyone else will be sent home. Before this, he divides the team into groups and each team takes turns hacking away ice and snow to make a path for Peary to easily reach the Pole. Father returns home before the actual "discovery" and reads about it in the newspaper. In the photo, the faces of Peary's Esquimo guides cannot be seen through the shadows of their coats, "because of the light the faces are indistinguishable, seen only as black blanks framed by caribou fur."


Just as he did with Emma Goldman, Doctorow presents an interesting psychological characterization of a historical person in his representation of explorer Robert Peary. Most interesting, perhaps, is Doctorow's portrayal of Peary's appropriation. Most notably, Peary takes credit for various survival techniques Esquimos have been using for years while simultaneously comparing the Esquimos to children and dogs; "They're children and they have to be treated like children." He also exploits the labor of his workers, including the Esquimos and his "Negro" assistant, Mathew Henson. "Peary would bring up the lag each day ... and immediately occupy one of the igloos built for him by Henson. In the meantime Henson took care of Peary's' dogs, repaired broken sledges, made supper, dealt with the Esquimos." It's clear Peary does very little of the difficult work required of an Arctic expedition, yet when he reaches the North Pole he takes sole credit for the discovery. Meanwhile, the identities of those who helped him get there are "indistinguishable, seen only as black blanks framed by caribou fur."

Throughout the novel, the narrator draws attention to characters' inability to find exactitude. First it happens with Dreiser's desk in Chapter 4, and later it happens when Peary can't pinpoint the North Pole; "He couldn't find the exact place to say this spot, here is the North Pole. Nevertheless there was no question that they were there." Moments like these support the novel's view of history's fluidity and the difficulty in pinpointing exact moments in time and space.

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