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Literature Study GuidesRagtimePart 2 Chapter 14 Summary

Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime | Part 2, Chapter 14 | Summary



Father returns home from his Arctic adventure to find much has changed in his year's absence. The most obvious, of course, is the "colored woman" and her baby living in the house. There are subtler changes as well. His son is more mature, looking far more like a student than a boy. His wife is more confident. The business thrived under her care, and she proudly shows Father the changes she made. There is also more technology, like an electric vacuum, in the home. Standing in front of the mirror, Father barely recognizes himself. The journey took a toll on his strength and appearance, and he recovers in the home like a convalescent. He is shocked one evening when Mother initiates sex with him, and he fears her newfound confidence is divine punishment for having slept with an Esquimo woman on his trip.

Younger Brother returns home after Evelyn unceremoniously dumps him. He is heartbroken and expresses his emotions by inventing the Cherry Bomb and loudly exploding things. When his memories become too strong, he throws away all of Evelyn's mementos, including a pair of her dance shoes and stack of her silhouette portraits.


Ragtime is arguably a novel about change, and in this chapter Father must faces changes occurring all around him. In his absence, his family has changed. Growing older, obviously, but also changing in personality. With no men around to manage things, Mother blossomed in a leadership role. She has gained new confidence, which shows in her pride over her business decisions and her sexual confidence. Father, who represents the "old world," cannot connect with the family he left behind. This is seen painfully in his gift giving. He brings home items of extreme value from the Arctic but the family doesn't know what to do with them. As Father empties his suitcase he realizes, "There was nothing he had to tell them."

The scene in front of the mirror symbolizes Father's self-reflection. He has not changed with the times and is now shriveled and emasculated, both physically and within the patriarchy. Realizing he is no longer the household leader leaves Father feeling like a "child" and a "convalescent." The thought that his wife might enjoy sex can only be explained as divine punishment for Father's dalliances with the Esquimo woman. Father has returned home to a new world, and he has been left behind.

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