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Literature Study GuidesRagtimePart 4 Chapter 40 Summary

Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime | Part 4, Chapter 40 | Summary



The novel's final chapter brings closure to the novel's different story lines. After a few hours with Father, Coalhouse surrenders himself to the police. Although they promised to take him in peacefully, he is shot and killed almost immediately on sight. In their Harlem hideaway, Coalhouse's gang feels restless and lost without his leadership. They give Younger Brother the Ford, which he drives aimlessly cross-country until he ends up in Mexico. He makes his way to Zapata's campesinos and is once again welcomed into revolutionary fighting because of his bomb-making skills. He dies in a battle against government forces in the same place where Zapata himself will die a year later.

Political tensions rise in America as World War I looms. Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated, and Houdini considers the grave news as he hangs upside down during a performance in New York City. Morgan hears about the news but it has little effect on him. He is in Egypt searching for a place to build his pyramid. Against his guide's wishes, Morgan spends the night inside a pyramid, hoping an ancient God will reveal hidden secrets to him. Instead, he is bitten by bedbugs, cold, and plagued by nightmares. His health deteriorates and he dies soon after, although he's sure he will be quickly reincarnated because, "he was so urgently needed again on earth."

Before he left town, Younger Brother left blueprint plans for various advanced explosives as "payment" to Father for his years of housing him. Father sells the blueprints to the U.S. government and various allied governments. While delivering explosives to England aboard The Lusitania, the ship is bombed and Father is killed. Mother mourns for a year before marrying Tateh, who reveals he is not a baron but a Jewish immigrant. It doesn't matter. The couple is joyously in love. They move to California with their three children (including Sarah's son), and Tateh writes a series of funny movies about "mischievous little urchins" who get into trouble. Emma Goldman is deported, Evelyn falls "into obscurity," and Thaw is released from the asylum.


The final section of the novel serves to tie up the loose ends of all the stories as all the characters, particularly the men, come to terms with their legacies. Coalhouse dies after learning what he could about his son. He seemed to know all along he would never be able to raise him, which is why he never tried to bond with him. The legacy he leaves for his son is one of honor and respect, which will hopefully become part of the national narrative toward racial equality. The fates of many characters—Younger Brother, Evelyn, Emma Goldman, and Thaw—feel inevitable; their personal stories seemed headed that way all along. Father's death is somewhat surprising, however, as he has moved into a new, successful career. As much as he dislikes Younger Brother, he is happy to appropriate Younger Brother's weaponry plans and profit from them. He dies on a ship filled with immigrants headed toward a new country—a bit of dramatic irony since Father always felt uncomfortable around immigrants. When discussing Father's death, the narrator seems to address the audience directly; "Poor Father, I see his final exploration." This statement has led many critics to conclude the narrator is a grown-up version of The Little Boy.

Mother and Tateh provide the novel's "happy ending," living an artistic, happy life in California with their mixed-race, blended family. They are so happy, in fact, Tateh feels compelled to write a sitcom about their utopian family, a series with "a bunch of children who were pals, white black, fat thin, rich poor, all kinds, mischievous little urchins who would have funny adventures ... like all of us, a gang, getting into trouble and getting out again." This series idea alludes to many Americans' nostalgic view of history while jokingly suggesting Tateh is the original creator of "The Little Rascals."

The themes of repetition and time are also concluded through the adventures of Morgan and Houdini. Morgan, who is obsessed with reincarnation, spends the night in an ancient pyramid, certain Osiris will reveal a universal truth to him. Once inside, however, he paces "from the west to the east, from the north to the south, though he didn't know which was which." This inability to pinpoint a place of extreme personal significance echoes Dreiser's struggle to situate his desk and Peary's struggle to locate the North Pole. The novel implies that individual moments are less important than the fluid narrative of history. Characters obsess about personal moments or their legacy, but the novel ends with a larger image of a crowd at a parade. While individuals like Houdini might make it into history books, it is the way lives intersect that truly shapes history.

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