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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Essay on Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow - A Critical Analysis

‘Ragtime’ is a blending of the stories of three fictional American families and different real and actual historical figures.  Using this unique style, E. L. Doctorow shows that history is a human design which can be recounted from a particular point of view.  The past events in history can be retold in a subjective fashion by arranging and selecting events to prove a cause and effect relationship between these events.

The major themes in the story are change and transformation.  E. L. Doctorow appears to stress that there is only one thing that is constant in this world and that is change.  Everything is in a state of constant flux and changing into something else.  E. L. Doctorow appears to say that the life of every character in the story changed after an apparent accidental encounter with the other characters in the story.  Since change is inevitable it will depend on the characters whether they will decide to accept these changes.  Impliedly, E. L. Doctorow may be saying that a person’s survival will depend on how he will decide to accept these changes as towards the end of the story, however, Mother, the character who seems to have embraced change, survived and married another man.
The novel’s setting is the beginning of the 20th Century in a small town in New York at the house an upper class family which has three main fictional characters: Mother, Father and the little boy.  The stories and lives of these three main characters are found to cross paths with other historical characters.  For instance, Mother’s Younger Brother is infatuated with Evelyn Nesbit a beautiful woman who is married to Harry Kendall Thaw.  The latter has been charged for the murder of her ex-lover.  Little boy who was a fan of Harry Houdini was surprised to find out that Houdini’s car broke down in front of their house and later pays them a visit.  

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‘Ragtime’ also provides a historical overview of the main events happening in the United States early in the 20th Century.  In fact, it can even be argued that the story is not just a reflection of the events in the 20thCentury but the novel is a reflection of the events that continue to happen until today.  For instance, the novel gives a glimpse of the kind of life experienced by many African Americans.  They were victimized by the society and the persons in authority refuse to help them.  Even in the 21st Century, it cannot be denied that African Americans are still subjected to discrimination. 

Moreover, E. L. Doctorow also accurately describes the setting of the story which was a time of rapid technological development and industrialization.  Because of the massive development, there was a wave of migration and technological advancement which helped increase the efficiency and production of goods.  E.L. Doctorow, however, also showed that development came with a price.  With the automation of the processes in the manufacturing plants, employees became dispensable and replaceable.  Thus, it was said in the novel that “From these principles Ford established the final proposition of the theory of industrial manufacture - not only that the parts of the finished product be interchangeable, but that the men who build the products be themselves interchangeable parts.” (Ragtime)

The story tells vividly the individual struggles each character faces in the story.  But it also shows that each of the character in the story affects another character in a profound way.  Thus, while the encounters of the different may seem to be mere coincidences, these crossing of paths have life-changing effects on the rest of the characters in the story.   For instance, Younger Brother’s life changed when he became involved with Coalhouse.  Before he met Coalhouse, Younger Brother thought that his life did not have any meaning.  Things changed, however, when he met Coalhouse and joined the group of revolutionaries.  He thought that he finally found a sense of purpose in his life.  Younger Brother’s new found life was vividly described in the story.  It was said that “They believed they were going to die in a spectacular manner. This belief produced in them a dramatic, exalted self-awareness. Younger Brother was totally integrated in their community. He was one of them. He awoke every day into a state of solemn joy.” (Ragtime)

In the final chapter of the story, Coalhouse was seen shot to death by a group of New York policemen.  Among many of the characters in the story, Coalhouse’s death is considered as one of the saddest moment in the novel.  One reason for this is the fact that Coalhouse represents the typical African American who was victimized by the society during the 20th Century.  Just like the other African Americans he thought that he deserved more than what the society is giving him.  Moreover, it is actually not difficult to take pity on his character since Coalhouse was actually a law abiding citizen and that he exerted every legal effort to resolve his issues with the society before he resorted to violence.  

Pierpont Morgan is also another important character in the story.  He was an actual historical figure who became rich because of his involvement with steel.  He however was a mystic and a believer in the occult.  He also thought that he is a reincarnation of an Egyptian King.  In his desire to convince others of his beliefs, he arranges a meeting with Henry Ford, another historical figure who was involved in the manufacture of automobiles.  He dies at the end of the novel.  But compared to the other characters, his death was expected and did not elicit any kind of sympathy.

Houdini is also another historical figure who became a famous escape artist.  He devoted his life trying to unmask fraudulent physics.  Despite his successes in the public eye, he has personal issues.  He was unhappy with what he was doing and often questioned whether he was contributing to the society or was merely an entertainer engaged in mindless entertainment. Towards the end of the story, however, he realized that he had experienced a genuine mystical experience in his life.  When the World War I broke out after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, he remembered that years ago he had met Little Boy who mysteriously told him to “Warn the Duke.” This once again highlights the important theme that the individual journeys of each of the character had a broader impact on the world affairs at the time.  Thus, while it may appear that the world of the Little Boy was much different from that of Houdini, towards the latter part, it became apparent that their coincidental meetings with each other had a more profound and lasting effect on their life.

Towards the end of the story, the individual journeys of the different characters in the story became connected with each other.  The three main fictional characters – Father, Mother and the Little Boy – who were initially together under one roof were separated.  Because of the interaction of these fictional characters with other characters such as Sarah, Coalhouse, and others, irreconcilable differences between Father and Mother came up.  The Mother realized some things and became liberated.  When father died after the sinking of the SS Lusitania, Mother married Baron Ashkenazy and together with their two children, and the child of Coalhouse and Sarah moved to California together where the three families were united.

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