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Literature Study GuidesRagtimePart 1 Chapter 13 Summary

Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime | Part 1, Chapter 13 | Summary



All across the United States, cities are building train tracks above and below ground, which fascinates Houdini. He hears of an underground worker—a "sandhog"—who was blown out of his tunnel by an underground explosion, shot 24-feet through silt and 40-feet up the river, but survived. Houdini rushes to the hospital where the worker is recovering and sneaks into his room. He tries to communicate with the worker and his family but they do not respond. Houdini is desperate to know how the man survived. "I want to know how it felt. I want to know what he did to get to the surface." He offers the family money and pleads with the survivor, but is kicked out of the hospital, humiliated. Afterward, Houdini decides to focus on "outdoor exploits" that may earn him more recognition than his illusions. No matter how many shows he performs or new tricks he masters, Houdini is filled with dissatisfaction.

He begins a European tour in Hamburg, around the same time airplanes are being invented. He watches a flying performance by a French-made "flying machine" and decides to buy it. He performs his magic in the evenings and spends his mornings on a German airbase getting flying lessons. When he's in the air, Houdini is filled with indescribable joy. He flies so often German soldiers eventually begin congregating to watch. One morning Houdini is surprised to see high-ranking military officials parked near his airplane. They ask to watch him fly, and Houdini puts on a brilliant show. Afterward, Houdini realizes the official is Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Countess Sophie. The impressed Archduke congratulates Houdini "on the invention of the aeroplane."


The tracks, "crisscrossing like the texture of an indefatigable civilization" once again symbolize the connectivity of the characters' lives while noting America's changing landscape. Technology is booming, and those who cannot change with technology are literally left behind. Although Tateh and his daughter delight in the train ride, the horrific accident in which the "sandhog" is blown through the tunnel forces readers to question whether technological advance is always for the best.

Houdini's reaction to the accident is interesting—he becomes obsessed with discovering the reason this particular miner survived when everyone else died. "It means a lot to me," he pleads with the family, before they throw him out. Doctorow creates a version of Houdini obsessed with immortality, very similar, in fact, to J.P. Morgan's obsession with ancient Egypt and reincarnation. Houdini "escapes death" through his illusions over and over and over, yet he wants more. He doesn't want to fake cheating death; he wants to actually escape it through legacy. "What was the sense of his life if people walked out of the theatre and forgot him?" In an instance of dramatic irony, Houdini joyfully performs for Franz Ferdinand only to have the duke mistakenly congratulate him for inventing the airplane. Again, this compliment underscores the motif of appropriation—people getting credit for others' achievements.

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