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Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime | Quotes


There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 1

This statement describes the society in which the New Rochelle family lives at the novel's start. Segregation and strict social codes have created a world in which an upper-class family can live completely separate from those who are "different."


Is our genius only in our wombs?

Emma Goldman, Part 1, Chapter 8

This is one of the powerful lines from Emma Goldman's first speech in Chapter 8. Her lament highlights the repression of women under the strict gender roles and social expectations of the time. Emma Goldman helped inspire women—such as Evelyn and Mother in Ragtime—to pursue their full potential.


He couldn't find the exact place to say this spot, here, is the North Pole.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 10

Peary's inability to determine an exact location for the North Pole is one of many examples of characters struggling to find meaning. Perspectives change quickly, and potentially meaningful moments soon prove meaningless. This quote also suggests history's fluidity and the difficulty of pinpointing certain moments as turning points.


For all his achievements he was a trickster, an illusionist, a mere magician.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 13

Houdini longs to create an impressive legacy that will earn him a spot in history books, yet there's an element he can't harness—walking the line between life and death. His frustration exemplifies many characters' struggle to find meaning in their lives.


This country will not let me breathe.

Tateh, Part 2, Chapter 17

After escaping the violent strike in Lawrence, Tateh expresses his disillusionment with the American dream. He thought hard work would earn him a better life, but the system keeps pushing him down.


There was suffering and now there is penitence.

Mother, Part 2, Chapter 21

Mother expresses her progressive thinking by being the first to welcome Coalhouse into her home, even though he is black and has a child out of wedlock. Father, stuck in his "old world" thinking, doesn't feel it's appropriate to invite such a man into their home.


Is that all you want from your life?

Emma Goldman, Part 2, Chapter 22

In one short pep talk, Emma Goldman transforms the way Younger Brother sees his life. Rather than pine away in misery over Evelyn's desertion, Younger Brother channels his anger into political causes such as civil rights.


We are suffering a tragedy that should not have been ours.

Father, Part 2, Chapter 28

Father continues to exhibit "old world" thinking by insisting he has nothing to do with Coalhouse. Father is uncomfortable with the way society has changed; he blames Mother for his discomfort because she facilitated the change in their home.


They were so transformed as to speak of themselves collectively as Coalhouse.

Narrator, Part 3, Chapter 32

Coalhouse's young followers begin calling themselves Coalhouse, highlighting that Coalhouse's struggle for respect is universal to black men at the time, in the same way Father, Mother, and Tateh are symbolic representations of particular social groups.


You have traveled everywhere and learned nothing.

Younger Brother, Part 3, Chapter 39

Younger Brother chastises Father for having every opportunity to progress his thinking but failing to do so. Father is wealthy, well traveled, and exposed to different cultures and struggles, yet he uses his experiences only to line his own pockets. Father would like to think he is progressive, but his self-assessment couldn't be further from the truth.

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