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Literature Study GuidesRagtimePart 1 Chapter 7 Summary

Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime | Part 1, Chapter 7 | Summary



After leaving the Tombs one afternoon, Evelyn realizes she's not being trailed by reporters. She asks her driver to simply drive, giving her a chance to enjoy a rare moment of freedom. They drive through the Lower East side of New York City, where immigrants live in abject poverty. Through the car window, Evelyn sees a "little dirty-faced girl" and tells the driver to stop. The Little Girl is beautiful, and Evelyn is overcome with love for her. The girl is tied by a clothesline to her father's waist so he doesn't lose her in the crowd while he works cutting silhouette portraits. Evelyn becomes fascinated with the artist—Tateh—and his daughter, regularly visiting them in the slums despite Tateh's objections. To be close to them, Evelyn has her portrait cut multiple times a day, sometimes alone and sometimes with The Little Girl. Every day when she visits, she knows she's being followed but she doesn't mind. She "dresses down" to avoid being recognized by reporters.

One afternoon Evelyn arrives to the corner where Tateh cuts portraits and discovers they are not there. She lurks around the tenements until she figures out where they live and barges in. When she learns The Little Girl is sick, Evelyn tells Tateh to go to work and says she will look after her. She bathes the girl and makes her a bed; "This was the day Evelyn Nesbit considered kidnapping The Little Girl and leaving Tateh to his fate."


Evelyn's obsession with The Little Girl is undoubtedly connected to her own traumatic upbringing. Evelyn herself was abandoned by a mother who would rather get rich than protect her child. As a result, Evelyn relives and takes control of her childhood by loving, mothering, and caring for The Little Girl, even though the relationship is bizarre. "She was insane with the desire to become one of them," the narrator says, and, "She was so desperately in love [with The Little Girl] that she could no longer see properly." The Little Girl is repeatedly described as "beautiful," so it's also possible Evelyn pities the girl, knowing she is fated to be a male plaything. Regardless, Evelyn sees herself in the child and wants to enmesh herself in the family's life. It is also possible that Evelyn, a wealthy woman, viewed The Little Girl as an object to be collected and cared for. Society's wealthiest members often viewed people and culture as "things" to be collected. This is seen with J.P. Morgan's amassed collection, Evelyn's relationship with The Little Girl, and Mother's relationship with Sarah. At this time, "Five Point" tours were popular with wealthy families, in which a guide was paid to safely navigate the rich through the slums to view the poverty as a form of entertainment. In this way, The Little Girl might also be viewed as a pretty souvenir of Evelyn's time in the slums.

On the periphery of this new relationship is the disappearance of Mameh, The Little Girl's mother. Tateh abandoned her after learning she was molested and raped by her boss in exchange for money. This sad fate highlights two aspects of female oppression; Mameh was exploited by her boss and then abandoned by her husband, who essentially believed she was a prostitute. There are strong parallels between Mameh and Evelyn; both are mistreated by powerful men and harshly punished (Evelyn is beaten, and Mameh is abandoned). Evelyn used her sexuality to obtain financial power; the reader never learns of Mameh's fate. However, both characters embody the central theme of female oppression in the name of male pleasure.

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