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Literature Study GuidesRagtimePart 3 Chapter 29 Summary

Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime | Part 3, Chapter 29 | Summary



This chapter gives background on Father's character. His mother died when he was young, and he had a distant relationship with his father. Where his father was flamboyant and footloose with his money, Father grew to be stoic and tight. "He wanted to avoid what the great Dr. James had called the habit of inferiority." In light of Coalhouse's renegade behavior, Father suddenly feels old and invisible to Mother, who is overwhelmed with grief over Sarah's death. Father feels satisfaction going to the police with knowledge about Coalhouse's identity and enjoys feeling needed and appreciated by the officers there; "They regarded him as an expert on the character of the criminal. They encouraged him to spend as much time at headquarters as he could." As much as he loves being useful at the station, Father is disgusted by Chief Conklin's character and horrified when the man acts friendly toward him.

A week after the first attack, Coalhouse and his gang strike again. There is one survivor of the firehouse attack, to whom Coalhouse coolly delivers a note stating his unchanged demands. The gang gets away in a white town car. African Americans across the city go into hiding. All the newspapers publish Coalhouse's letter this time. Newspapers scramble to gather information about him. Somehow, reporters connect him to the New Rochelle family, and the yard becomes infested with photographers hoping to snap a photo of "the killer's" son. Mother begins to fear for the boy's safety and demands that Father "unlock your treasure chest and get me some proper help." Father looks around and sees how all his family relationships have deteriorated. Overcome with disappointment, he desperately decides to take his son to a baseball game.


Father's upbringing clearly affected the man he would become. Although he was born into a "well-bred" moneyed family, his father squandered their fortune, leaving Father feeling socially and financially inferior to his peers. As a result, Father continually feels the need to prove himself as belonging to the upper class, which is why he clings so desperately to social order and financial hierarchy. He longs to feel important, a longing reignited after failing in his mission to the North Pole and realizing his family thrived in his absence. He feels old and impotent when comparing himself to Coalhouse's bold behavior. Looking back, he wonders whether his immediate dislike for Coalhouse had to do with the color of Coalhouse's skin or that he was "engaged in an act of courtship," an act of vitality and youth. Father notices "the skin mottling on the back of his hand" and "his bladder seemed always to demand emptying." Father is desperately jealous of Coalhouse. "He felt stupid and plodding, available simply to have done to him what circumstances would do. Coalhouse ruled. Yet he had been to the Arctic, to Africa, to the Philippines." Father wants not only to push Coalhouse down to his place of subservience below him but also to find something to make him feel alive again. Engaging in the police search for Coalhouse accomplishes both tasks. Father feels important while punishing the "Negro" for forgetting his place. It is interesting to note Father's repulsed reaction to Chief Conklin; "Once he actually put his hand on Father's shoulder, a gesture of such alarming brotherhood that it felt like an electric shock." This further supports Father's strict belief in social hierarchy.

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