Literature Study GuidesRagtimePart 1 Chapter 3 Summary

Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime | Part 1, Chapter 3 | Summary



Most of the immigrants coming to America are from Italy and Eastern Europe. They arrive in New York and are "somehow absorbed in the tenements." Native New Yorkers despise the immigrants and treat them poorly, which adds to the immigrants' misery. Despite their difficult lives in America, immigrant families still grasp at happiness in the tenements. One such family is Mameh, Tateh, and The Little Girl. The family sews pants for money, but when that isn't enough Mameh turns to prostitution. At the same time, local reporter Jacob Riis agitates for better housing for the poor. He asks Stanford White for ideas on public housing, but nothing comes of the interview.


This chapter highlights the terrible conditions newcomers endured in America around the turn of the century and is in sharp contrast to the privileged New Rochelle family in the novel's first chapters. At this time in American history the divide between rich and poor was spectacular, yet poverty and the plight of immigrants were little noticed or understood. (Remember, in the mind of Father and his family there were no immigrants.) When the journalist tries to expose the horrific living conditions immigrants are forced into, Stanford White is too busy unpacking his expensive china and rare books to take notice.

Just as Doctorow uses the names Father, Mother, and The Little Boy to suggest the family could be anyone, so does he use the names Mameh, Tateh, and The Little Girl to suggest this family's experiences could have happened to any newcomer to America.

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