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Literature Study GuidesRagtimePart 1 Chapter 5 Summary

Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime | Part 1, Chapter 5 | Summary



For his new trick Houdini decides he would like to escape from the jail where Thaw is being held. The warden isn't pleased with the idea but knows he can't refuse or it will appear he has no confidence in his "escape-proof" jail. Houdini is placed in a locked prison cell, naked and in leg irons, his clothes just on the other side of the locked bars. Using various bits of wire and metal hidden on his body, Houdini easily picks the locks and escapes. On the other side of the hall, Thaw strips off his clothing and gestures aggressively toward Houdini, who is traumatized by the event. The chapter gives a short history of Houdini's career and asserts he was "passionately in love with his ancient mother." In a bit of dramatic irony, Sigmund Freud (the psychoanalyst who coined the term "Oedipus complex" to refer to a son's repressed desire for his mother) has just arrived in America.


On the surface, Thaw's obscene gesture toward Houdini in prison seems to be another indicator of Thaw's insanity. Why else would he strip off his clothes and thrust his genitalia through the prison bars? Houdini, who is deeply insecure despite his many successes, feels sure Thaw is mocking his trick: "Always [the rich] broke through the pretense of his life and made him feel foolish." He recalls another incident from his career in which a wealthy woman made him feel small—as if she owned Houdini's "tricks" simply because she paid him to perform. This fictionalized version of Houdini is not in this business simply to entertain. He is searching for something and attempting to escape the forces depressing him.

Chapters 4 and 5 also highlight the fluid nature of Doctorow's history. Historical and fictional characters slip in and out of one other's lives as the novel transitions from one story to another: Younger Brother fantasizes about Evelyn, who is thinking about her husband, who is in prison with Houdini, who is feeling depressed about his mother—a relationship that would interest Freud deeply. These intertwining stories highlight the connectivity of the human race and suggest major historical events affect everyone, even people who aren't directly involved.

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