Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime | Symbols


Many of Doctorow's characters fill allegorical roles, symbolizing larger groups in society. As such, characters are occasionally given labels (such as The Little Boy) rather than individual names to highlight the universality of their stories.


As a white upper-class male, Father represents the true "old world" patriarchy, in which one is born into privilege and doesn't have to earn respect. His character symbolizes traditional family values and gender roles in the early 20th century, as well as the struggle to adjust to changes and new freedoms. Father expects his wife will remain demurely respectful (despite his infidelity), his brother-in-law will feel indebted to his generosity, and society will respect him as a successful, masculine leader. When Father's expectations are challenged—when his wife succeeds in business or Younger Brother rebels against his authority—he exposes his weaknesses. The same is true of society. When events challenge the status quo—for example, when Coalhouse makes demands after the attack—society shows its weakness—its dependence on traditions and inability to evolve.


During the civil rights movement (1954–68), there were two schools of thought about how African Americans could achieve social equality: through the help of white neighbors (a belief championed by author and educator Booker T. Washington) or by demanding it through any means necessary (a belief championed by black leaders like Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X). Coalhouse's character represents black Americans who challenged white expectations and fought against injustice through violence. Coalhouse wasn't always this way. He started his fight peacefully, but when it became clear no one would take him seriously, his actions became more severe. When Coalhouse's followers adopt his name—"We all Coalhouse!"—his experience comes to symbolize all black men's struggles to be seen as equals.


At a time when most women are expected to be happy homemakers and mothers, Evelyn Nesbit symbolizes female empowerment. As a model and showgirl, Evelyn uses her beauty and sexuality as tools for control, and she's adept at such manipulation. As Emma Goldman notes, "You're nothing more than a clever prostitute." Wielding her sexual power, Evelyn accrues a small fortune from her wealthy husband—although not nearly as much as she had hoped—which she immediately squanders. Although the novel values characters who buck social tradition, the lesson in Evelyn's character is to not place too much value on beauty because it is fleeting.

The Little Boy and The Little Girl

Like all children, The Little Boy and The Little Girl symbolize hope for the future. Their parents work hard to create better lives for their children than they had. Father is concerned with leaving his son in a stable financial situation, while Tateh is so concerned with offering his daughter opportunity that he changes his identity to create it. The Little Boy is obsessed with repetition, suggesting history repeats itself in each generation, yet at the end of the novel, things have changed. The Little Boy will not live in the same society Father was nostalgic for. The novel ends with a note of hope as Tateh looks at his three children and imagines a series of films starring a ragamuffin cast of urchins getting in and out of trouble, an optimistic view of the American future.

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