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Literature Study GuidesRagtimePart 2 Chapter 27 Summary

Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime | Part 2, Chapter 27 | Summary



Spring arrives. Houdini spends the new season mourning for his mother who had passed away some months earlier while Houdini was in Europe. He is overwhelmed with guilt that she died alone and becomes obsessed with finding a way to communicate with her in death. "If it was possible to communicate with the dead he would find out." He hires various scientists and researchers to help him. When he turns up nothing, Houdini throws himself back into work with new vigor, often shocking the audience. "Every fear enacted Houdini's desire for his dead mother. He was buried and reborn, buried and reborn." During one performance, audiences begin shouting he's gone too far, he's "experimenting with damnation!" Houdini stands to address them but is quieted by a loud explosion behind him.


Ragtime is set in an era of American history where technology was advancing and people were leaving primitive methods behind. Houdini, however, searches the past to find ways of bridging the gap between the living and the dead. His search highlights the reality that no matter who you are, you end up in the same place—the grave—and no matter how advanced technology becomes, death is inevitable. This chapter also serves to remind readers of the fluidity between the stories. Thaw escapes from prison and says, "Just call me Houdini," which transitions the narrator to Houdini's story. At a later show, Houdini's audience is startled by an explosion, which happens to be Coalhouse's bombing the Emerald Isle Fire Station across town. This connectivity is central to Ragtime's style, reminding readers how easy it is for characters to touch and shape each other's lives.

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