Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime | Themes



The sweeping narrative of Ragtime reminds readers time is steadily moving forward and individuals can change with the times or be left behind. During this particular era of American history, the "old world" and the "new world" collide as technology advances and social structures collapse. Some characters thrive while others struggle as America changes rapidly over the course of the novel. For example Mother always had been content with her traditional gender role, but when Father leaves for the Arctic, she is forced to adapt. She manages the house and business confidently. As a result, she takes control of her own life, taking in Sarah and the baby and embracing her sexuality. At the same time, Mother loses respect for Father when she realizes running the business isn't as difficult as Father made it seem. She becomes a dreamer, searching out excitement and emotion—two things Father cannot give her.

Father, on the other hand, is an example of characters who struggle to adapt to change. When he returns from the Arctic everything befuddles him, from the new vacuum in the living room to Mother's confidence in the bedroom. Coalhouse's appearance in his home magnifies Father's reticence. Although he respects Coalhouse as a musician, he will never view him as an equal. Father is filled with nostalgia for the past, essentially when being rich and white gave one ultimate power. When previously marginalized characters—women and "Negroes"—begin pushing back against social norms, Father panics and feels great pleasure in stomping these characters back "into place." He "did not realize the pleasure he felt in having made [Mother] cry" (Chapter 28), and when helping the police bring down Coalhouse, "he could feel queer pulses of bitter glee breaking over his back" (Chapter 38). Father's inability to change manifests itself as anger and fear, whereas Mother's ability to change manifests itself first as dissatisfaction and later as bliss.

Tateh is perhaps the best example of change. He arrives in America as a poor immigrant, but through a series of quick changes and invention, he becomes a new man (with a new name). By "rolling with the punches" and adapting to each new situation, Tateh creates his own success. At the end of the novel, Tateh and Mother have the happiest ending.


All the characters in the novel are concerned with finding stability in their lives or where they belong in the world. As the world changes around them, characters like Mother and Father must readjust their visions of belonging. When Father returns home from the Arctic, for example, he feels like a stranger in his own home, while at the same time, Mother no longer feels at ease in her family role. Younger Brother, a disillusioned youth desperate to give his life meaning, is perhaps the most literal example of a character searching for belonging. After a serious heartbreak, Younger Brother channels his anger into vigilantism, first joining Coalhouse's gang and later the Mexican Zapatistas. While fighting alongside Coalhouse, Younger Brother "believed they were going to die in a spectacular manner ... He was one of them. He awoke every day into a state of solemn joy." Younger Brother even changes his appearance, shaving his head and wearing blackface, to symbolize his sense of belonging.

Unlike Younger Brother, most characters never feel the full sense of meaning in their lives. They are doomed to fumble through experiences feeling unsure of their meaning, like Dreiser continually shifting his desk searching for its perfect direction and Peary struggling to locate the true North Pole. The characters who find meaning are those who disregard society's views and simply focus on what gives them fulfillment.


American society in the early 1900s was filled with racism, xenophobia, female repression, and class cruelty that held many characters back from living fully. This is most aptly expressed through the experiences of marginalized people such as immigrants, African Americans, and women. After working menial jobs in horrific conditions for low pay, Tateh laments, "This country will not let me breathe!" The same choking breathlessness is mirrored in Evelyn's corset, a cinching undergarment she makes tight enough to leave red marks all over her skin. It literally causes pain in the name of beauty. When Evelyn meets Emma Goldman, a radical anarchist, Evelyn finally removes her corset, not only literally but also symbolically, through her informal education.

The obstacles to living life fully are best seen in Coalhouse and Sarah's short-lived happiness. Given the novel's introduction to these characters, both seem doomed for misery simply because they are black. The impoverished Sarah tries to kill her newborn baby because she feels she cannot raise him, and Coalhouse is attacked by Chief Conklin and his men for the crime of being black in the wrong place at the wrong time. After the attack, Coalhouse is forced to use money saved for his wedding to fund a futile lawsuit, bankrupting his happy future. It isn't until Coalhouse gives everything he has—his money, his fiancé, his family, and his life—that those in power acknowledge his wishes.

Questions for Themes

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