Literature Study GuidesRagtimePart 1 Chapter 8 Summary

Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime | Part 1, Chapter 8 | Summary

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Summary

Tateh, a socialist, invites Evelyn to join him at a meeting where famed anarchist Emma Goldman will be lecturing. Evelyn is intimidated by Goldman's reputation and doesn't know much about socialism but decides to attend anyway. Goldman gives a fiery lecture against the institution of marriage and the bondage it forces women into, comparing marriage to prostitution. "Is our genius only in our wombs?" she asks, while listing everything women in society are not entitled to do. Goldman recognizes Evelyn in the crowd and announces "one of the most brilliant women in America" is in the audience. Goldman calls Evelyn brilliant for using her sexual attraction to get what she wants, yet she does not name Evelyn. Nevertheless, Tateh knows who Goldman is talking about and is disgusted.

Suddenly, police burst into the meeting and a melee ensues as the crowd is dispersed. Evelyn is separated from Tateh and The Little Girl. Goldman grabs her hand and pulls her away from the violence. The whole time, the man following Evelyn (now revealed to be Mother's Younger Brother) follows. He follows them into the rooming house where Goldman is staying and hides in a large cupboard, watching. Evelyn and Goldman talk quietly about Thaw's trial and Evelyn's part in it. Goldman begins washing Evelyn's feet as they discuss their various relationships with men. Goldman reveals she tried to become a prostitute but her first "john" talked her out of it. As she talks, Goldman realizes Evelyn is wearing a corset. She insists Evelyn remove it and then massages her with oil where the metal spokes had been digging into her skin. The massage becomes sensual and Younger Brother bursts from the cupboard with his pants down, pleasuring himself.

Analysis

This chapter fictionalizes real-life anarchist Emma Goldman. Her speech characterizes Goldman's beliefs that for women, marriage is akin to prostitution, pointing to Evelyn as a prime example. Indeed, Evelyn grew up in a poor coal-mining town and used her beauty and sexuality to gain financial and social power. Evelyn continues to "sell herself" to Thaw by performing sex acts and testifying in his defense in exchange for money. Interestingly, Doctorow creates another layer to Goldman's characterization—jealousy. She admits to being intrigued by Evelyn despite despising her life choices; "Why should I have felt such strong bonds between us? You are the embodiment in women of everything I pity and abhor." She goes on and on about how she is above Evelyn yet wants to form a sisterhood with her. She compares their lives saying hers is much more truthful and free than Evelyn's ever could be. Her protestation about how different they are is tinged with envy because Evelyn is beautiful and gets what she wants while Goldman has to fight for it. "I've probably slept with more men than you have," Goldman says. "I've loved more men than you have. I bet it would shock you to know how free I've been, in what freedom I've lived my life. Because like all whores you value propriety." Goldman admits to having attempted to become a prostitute to raise money for her political causes but she was turned away. She has failed where Evelyn has succeeded.

The real-life Goldman was a proponent for female sexual freedom without becoming subordinate to male desires. She advocated for women to stay single or engage in lesbian relationships, abandoning the patriarchy (marriage) to engage their personal sexual interests and desires. Doctorow pokes fun at the seeming impossibility of this belief by hiding Younger Brother in the closet to masturbate while Goldman massages Evelyn.

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