HomeLiterature Study GuidesRagtimePart 2 Chapter 16 Summary

Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime | Part 2, Chapter 16 | Summary

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Summary

Tateh and The Little Girl have been living in Lawrence, Massachusetts, since autumn. Tateh works backbreaking hours at a loom for the American Woolen Company for very little pay to support his family, yet he has nothing to show for it. "The family lived in a wooden tenement on a hill. They had no heat. They occupied one room overlooking an alley in which residents customarily dumped their garbage." When loom workers are shorted pay, they strike. In three days, nearly every textile factory in the city is shut down. Organizers from New York come down to manage the striking workers. Tateh designs the strike posters and crafts silhouette flipbooks to entertain The Little Girl.

The strike drags on and families begin to starve. Sympathetic families around the country volunteer to take in tenement children until the strike is over. The first 100 children are sent away with much press coverage. Tateh finally decides he must protect The Little Girl and send her away. However, when her train to Philadelphia arrives, police swarm the station and violent riot breaks out. Tateh hurls The Little Girl on the train and is badly beaten. When he regains consciousness, the train is pulling away from the station. He musters his strength and pulls himself onto the departing train, clinging to the bars "like a man in prison begging to be set free."

Analysis

This chapter fictionalizes the events of the Bread and Roses strike of 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts—a 9-week strike in which thousands of immigrants refused to work, smashed machines, and even sent their children to live with strangers in other cities to protect them from the violence. Doctorow's unique writing style personalizes historic events while elevating them to greater universal meaning. When Tateh left New York, he believed he could create a better life for his family, yet in Lawrence they live as squalid an existence as they had before. Initially, the strike "overjoyed" Tateh, but by the end he realizes the I.W.W.'s win means little. "But what has it won? A few more pennies in wages. Will it now own the mills? No." Tateh sees industrious work will not create a better life. Such work is menial and undervalued. This starts Tateh's disillusionment with the American dream. Like many other characters, he now feels trapped. As the train of escape hurtles away from Massachusetts, Tateh clings to the side "like a man in prison begging to be set free."

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