Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime | Plot Summary

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Ragtime follows the intertwining stories of three families around New York City at the turn of the 20th century. The novel is divided into four parts. Part One introduces an upper-class white family: Father, Mother, Grandfather, Mother's Younger Brother, and The Little Boy. The family lives in New Rochelle, a wealthy suburb outside of New York City, where they enjoy an easy, orderly life dictated by traditional gender roles and social expectations. Their quiet lives are shaken up when the famed magician Harry Houdini visits after his car breaks down outside the family home and Father leaves for an expedition to the North Pole. In his absence, Mother is left alone to run the house and business; in the process, she discovers she thrives in a leadership role, and she feels deflated upon Father's return.

While Father is away, Mother discovers and rescues a newborn black baby who was buried in her garden. After finding out the baby's mother is Sarah, a neighborhood wash woman, Mother impulsively decides to take Sarah and the baby in rather than turning them over to the authorities. Mother raises the baby as her own and cares for Sarah, who is despondent and depressed. Shortly after, a well-mannered, black ragtime pianist named Coalhouse Walker, Jr. shows up at the house asking to see Sarah, who refuses him. Coalhouse persists, visiting each weekend and spending time with the family, which makes Father uncomfortable. Eventually, Sarah agrees to see Coalhouse, and they are engaged soon after. Things seem to be looking up for Sarah until Coalhouse is the victim of a racist attack; a group of volunteer firefighters, led by Chief Conklin, trash his prized Model T automobile. Coalhouse demands Conklin repair his damaged car; he files complaints and searches for a lawyer to represent him, which only makes the situation worse. Sarah hears President Taft's vice president will be in town for a political rally and decides to plead Coalhouse's case to him. However, when she approaches the vice president, Secret Service agents think she is trying to assassinate him, and they beat her. She dies from her injuries.

At the same time, Mother's Younger Brother becomes involved with the infamous model, Evelyn Nesbit. Evelyn's husband, Harry K. Thaw, is on trial for murdering her lover, the famed architect Stanford White, in a jealous rage. Although Thaw is deranged and has a history of violence, Evelyn agrees to testify in his defense in exchange for $250,000. The case is widely covered by the press, and Evelyn is often swamped by reporters. To escape the claustrophobia of journalistic scrutiny, Evelyn disguises herself and travels to the Lower East Side, a neighborhood in New York City filled with poor immigrants living in tenements. There, she meets Tateh, a Jewish immigrant, and his beautiful young daughter, The Little Girl. Evelyn is enchanted by The Little Girl and forces her way into the child's life. Tateh is a staunch socialist who introduces Evelyn to famed anarchist Emma Goldman. At one of Goldman's rallies, Evelyn's true identity is revealed, which horrifies Tateh. As the rally descends into pandemonium, Tateh and The Little Girl escape, boarding a train to Boston. After arriving in Boston, Tateh finds work in nearby Lawrence, Massachusetts. Tateh works at a textile mill until he is injured in a violent strike. He and The Little Girl escape to Philadelphia, where he sells flipbooks to a novelty shop and begins to make a name for himself as an artist. Meanwhile, Houdini becomes a pilot and performs for Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Countess Sophie of Austria-Hungary, and automaker Henry Ford and banker J.P. Morgan meet to discuss business.

Back in New Rochelle, the news of Sarah's death pushes Coalhouse over the edge. He bombs the firehouse, announcing that until Chief Conklin is turned over to his justice and his Model T restored, he will continue his attacks. The city is engulfed in fear of the maniac "Negro." Younger Brother joins Coalhouse's gang after heartbreak over Evelyn's desertion pushes him into bomb making. Ignorant of Younger Brother's involvement, Mother, Father, The Little Boy, and Sarah's son escape to the New Jersey seaside. They once again enjoy a quiet, upper-class life filled with white tablecloths, multi-course meals, and afternoon swims. They meet the eccentric Baron Ashkenazy, a successful filmmaker later revealed to be Tateh. The Little Boy and The Little Girl form a close friendship, and it's clear there are romantic sparks between Mother and Tateh, although they don't act on them. When Coalhouse and his gang break into billionaire businessman J.P. Morgan's private library and hold his priceless artifacts hostage, Booker T. Washington and Father rush to help negotiate. Father is able to help the district attorney negotiate a deal: in exchange for Coalhouse's turning himself in, Chief Conklin will be pulled from hiding and forced to repair the Model T in the street for all to see. The Model T is restored and the gang use it to escape. However, as Coalhouse surrenders, he is shot on site. Fleeing in the Model T, Younger Brother joins Mexican revolutionaries south of the border and dies in a skirmish soon after. Father dies aboard the Lusitania during World War I, after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Countess Sophie, when the ship is sunk by a German submarine. One year later, Mother and Tateh marry and live happily ever after in California with The Little Boy, The Little Girl, and Sarah's son.

Ragtime Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Houdini meets the family in New Rochelle.

Rising Action

2 Father leaves for his Arctic expedition.

3 Mother takes in Sarah and her baby.

4 Evelyn breaks Younger Brother's heart.

5 Tateh sells his flipbooks in Philadelphia.

6 Chief Conklin desecrates Coalhouse's car.

7 Sarah is killed.

8 The family travels to Atlantic City.


9 Coalhouse holds Morgan's library hostage.

Falling Action

10 Coalhouse is killed, but his gang escapes.

11 Younger Brother dies in Mexico.


12 Mother and Tateh marry.

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