Doctorow has a love-hate relationship with the passage of time. On the one hand, it plods forward: minute by minute, day by day. This matter-of-fact progression is mirrored by the straightforwardness of Ragtime. People do things. People marry, have sex, have babies, murder other people, and fly aeroplanes.
But now and then, all these commonplace actions add up to something marvelous and wonderful—an amazing coincidence, a twist of fate, a stunning admission, or just... history being fascinating. Doctorow doesn't seem to delve too deeply into any one character's lives or mind. But he shows their feelings and how those feelings motivate their actions, and in doing that, shows how our actions and interactions create the time we live in.
Everyone plays a part in history, even if they don't recognize it. When the night guard is outside the Morgan library during Coalhouse's siege, lying on top of a roof, and can feel everyone around him:
"He lay in the rain on guard and felt, though he could not see, the presence of thousands of quietly watchful New Yorkers. During the night he thought they made a sound, some barely detectable mourning sound, not more than an exhalation, not louder than the mist of fine rain." (37.4)
This passage combines the straightforward, matter of fact tone that defines Ragtime—yup, there are indeed tons of New Yorkers milling around New York at any given moment—and a definite sense of awe. Because what is more awe-inspiring than being surrounded by a teeming metropolitan area, where millions of people manage to coexist… even if they coexist a little dysfunctionally.
What was your first clue? Okay, yeah, the fact that the novel is set in the early 1900s is pretty much a dead giveaway. But there's also something special at work here, a technique that gained Doctorow a lot of attention. Before this book, people were used to reading biographies (non-fiction) and historical novels that featured a famous person or two.
But Doctorow combined fact and fiction, famous and not so famous in a way that wasn't just biography or trying to re-retell a historical event. He re-created an entire time period, demonstrating the way history affects us all, and showing the way each of us is part of an intricately designed web of time in which our actions affect people in ways we couldn't have imagined.
The last beefy paragraph of Ragtime details the lives of many of the characters after the era of ragtime had ended. It's a long passage—go read it—but we'll tackle the issues it raises here.
First, we get our happy ending: Mother and Tateh get married, each changing with the times, adapting and learning and progressing towards the future. Tateh embraces filmmaking and makes a wonderful living, and at the end of the book he has a vision of a series of films, which will be the "Our Gang" series, about children of all races and types living and playing together. The happy endings in this world, the novel suggests, belong to those who embrace ambition and multiculturalism.
We know that Emma Goldman gets deported, suggesting that history might not be too keen on people that are in such out-and-out defiance of society. Poor Emma. She was ahead of her time with the whole "no corsets" thing.
Evelyn Nesbit falls into obscurity once she's lost her cherub-girl prettiness. Here's a neat little lesson about planning for the future (it's right around the corner) and not relying on looks alone.
The last sentence shows us that we've won the war, but a crazy murderer (Harry K. Thaw) marches annually in the Armistice Day parade. Life goes on, continually full of lunatics and parades and surprises.
Ahh, the Big Apple. The City That Never Sleeps. What could be more American than New York City (besides apple pie)?
While Ragtime does take trips to the Arctic, Egypt, Europe and other locations in the Unites States, the book's real center is New York: from the beginning of the turn of the century to the end of World War I.
The setting is hugely important. New York at this time is the center of America, and is on its way to becoming a global capital. By using New York as his setting, Doctorow can examine a bajillion different themes: from immigration and poverty to class differences and intolerance and sex.
Check out the contrasts that Doctorow conjures up. One the one hand there's (yeeesh) this:
The tenements glowed like furnaces and the tenants had no water to drink. The sink at the bottom of the stairs was dry. Fathers raced through the streets looking for ice. [...] Horses exploded in the heat. Their exposed intestines heaved with rats. (3.7)
And on the other end of the income spectrum there's this:
Thaw was not really fond of the jail fare so they brought in his meals from Delmonico's. He liked to feel clean so they passed along a change of clothes delivered each morning to the jail doors by his valet. (4.4)
Anything and everything is possible in New York City, if you have the right amount of money. But between rich and poor lies a broad spectrum, and it's in the middle-income melting pot of New York that Doctorow focuses the action of his novel. Doctorow plays the city like a piano, hitting notes where he wants and bringing characters in and out of famous locales.
Freud spots the Little Girl and Tateh on the Lower East Side, Houdini hangs above Times Square, the mansions of the rich contrast with the tenements of the poor. Through it all, more and more immigrants are arriving at Ellis Island, trying to pursue the American dream. It all goes through New York. If you can make it there... well, you know the rest.
In 1971, John Lennon famously said, "If I'd lived in Roman times, I'd have lived in Rome. Today, America is the Roman empire, and New York is Rome itself. New York is the center of the earth." What Doctorow is foreshadowing, by setting Ragtime in New York at the turn of the century, is that the United States would loom freaking large in the 20th century. The United States became a superpower in the 20th century, and Doctorow charts its meteoric rise by concentrating on America's largest city.
"Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast..." Scott Joplin
The epigraph speaks to the steady, slow pace of life at the turn of the century. Ragtime takes place befoe World War I, before technology and industry and a changing society created an America that moved at a much faster pace.
But, although America between 1900-1917 isn't moving to the frenetic pace of hip-hop, or house, or even 1950s rock n' roll, it is moving to the peppy strains of ragtime. Gone are the days of the waltzes: things are speeding up.
Ragtime music was a precursor to jazz, which was a precursor to rock n' roll, which was a precursor to… well, to most everything else. Although this epigraph suggests playing ragtime music slowly, Doctorow knows that ragtime will pave the way for the hedonism of the Jazz Age and everything that came afterwards. Change is inevitable, however slowly you want your music to be played.
The language in Ragtime is exceedingly simple, like a story being told by a grandfather at the dinner table. And while the ideas are more complicated—centering on ideas of civil rights, socialism, industrialism, and the growth of America in one of its most turbulent periods— Doctorow brings them to life through the struggles of his characters.
Plus, unlike grandpa, Doctorow leaves out all the boring stuff and doesn't repeat himself!
The narrator is like a wise old guy who's seen it all. He doesn't embellish. He doesn't use flowery words or purple prose. He just puts it out there and describes the unfolding of history. But along the way, with the benefit of history and knowing how things worked out, our narrator offers up some opinions well.
He talks about immigrants, first saying: "They were filthy and illiterate. They stank of fish and garlic. They had running sores" (3.1), but then goes on to say: "But somehow piano lessons began to be heard. People stitched themselves to the flag. They sang. They told jokes" (3.3).
At first he's representing the opinions of the majority of New Yorkers at the time, and then bringing his own knowledge of the importance of immigrants to America to counterbalance those attitudes. It's something Doctorow does throughout, presenting people and places the way they're seen at the time and then later as people's perceptions change over time.
You maybe realized it when you first saw the character names "Mother," "Father," or "Mother's Young Brother." Or maybe you realized it when you stumbled on the Yiddish "Tateh" (Daddy) and "Mameh" (Mommy). Or when you realized that there were characters named "Little Girl" and "Little Boy."
Whatever caused the "Aha!" explosion in your brain, you just knew you were dealing with something heavily allegorical. The novel Ragtime ain't just a story that happens to take place within a certain time in history: it is about that time in history. The end of the novel signals the end of the Ragtime Era:
And by that time the era of Ragtime had run out, with the heavy breath of the machine, as if history were no more than a tune on a player piano. (40.24)
Through this novel, we gain access to a particular crossroads in American history. And the characters that aren't based on historical figures are totally about ways to approach the dawn of a new century. Father is stuck in the past. Mother comes into her own. Tateh carpes the ol' diem and becomes a self-made man. Mother's Younger Brother defines himself by his relationships to other people: the early 20th century was crawling with movements and stands to take. Little Boy and Little Girl just stand back and take it all in.
We invite you to mosey on over to our Character Analysis section and look into these characters (and what they symbolize) in more depth.
Don't stand in the way of progress or you'll get run over... probably by a Model T. The Model T is a big character in Ragtime, symbolizing progress and all the fears that come with it.
Let's check out the birth of the Model T. This old-timey automobile was put together on the first assembly line, allowing it to be assembled for super-cheap and making the good ol' auto accessible to the masses. Great, right? Well, sure. But the assembly line was based on the mechanics of a slaughterhouse. That's pretty grisly, and very symbolic.
J.P. Morgan thinks that the assembly line is symbolic of reproduction:
Has it occurred to you that your assembly line is not merely a stroke of industrial genius but a projection of organic truth? (20.5)
He's got a point here. The assembly line puts together, bit by bit, a moving vehicle. That's pretty nifty. But think about what else it does. Assembly lines are the first stages of creating a workforce with reduced skill. Instead of having one dude with crazy mechanical skills put together an entire car, you now have a bunch of guys learning how to put together one part of a car.
The assembly line is, in effect, a disassembly line of labor skillz. And hey, you know what else was called a "disassembly line"? A slaughterhouse.
This is symbolic of the fears people at the turn of the 20th century had about mechanization. It seemed, to the hat-wearing populace of the early 1900s, that new-fangled inventions would tear the country apart. People would lose skills. The machines would take over. The robot overlord apocalypse would be nigh.
Let's also check out the role of cars in Ragtime. A group of bigoted firemen poop in Coalhouse's car, which sets about a series of events that gets a bunch of people being killed. The car, in Coalhouse's case, is an extension of his pride. His pride is wounded, and he lashes out.
This kind of thinking is still super prevalent today: have you ever seen anyone fly off the handle because their car got keyed? Have you seen Ferris Bueller's Day Off? Cars can become an extension of the car-owner.
This I-love-my-car-more-than-I-love-life attitude brings us back to the idea of progress being terrifying. Much as an assembly line compartmentalizes labor and can reduce all-around skill, technological progress was seen to compartmentalize, and reduce, humanity.
The fear is that when humans can transfer human emotions to objects and say "That car is my pride/freedom/independence" or "My smartphone is my brain/social life/memory" they lose the ability to retain pride, or brains within themselves.
Having survived more than a century with ye olde horseless carriage, we know that cars haven't left us with a broken society. But the fears that surrounded technology in the early 20th century are the same fears that we harbor today. Replace "Model T" with "Google Glass" and you have an idea of how scary (and yes, exciting) the automobile was.
Doctorow named his novel Ragtime for a very valid reason: it represents the last time America moved at such a slow, measured pace. As Scott Joplin, who composed the Maple Leaf Rag and other famous ragtime pieces, says in the epigraph of the book: "Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast..."
This period of time is kind of when America caught its breath, just before launching into the two World Wars, the craziness of cars and technology, and finally TV, computers and the smartphones we're all walking around with today.
Even the way Doctorow tells his tale matches the pace and style of Ragtime music... the book's sentences are short and steady, like the "small clear chords" (21.8) of "Wall Street Rag."
It's also worth noting that ragtime music is totally a precursor to jazz. The Jazz Age signaled the collective loss of American innocence. But the Ragtime Age was still clinging to the last scraps of innocence left over from the 19th century… even as it paved the way for the faster, louder, more hedonistic future.
Doctorow gives us a God's eye view of the internal action within the characters. He zooms in and out of consciousnesses like a demented fighter pilot. We get an intimate look at Evelyn's take on her looks:
She had no joy. She looked into the mirror and saw the unmistakable lineaments of womanhood coming into her girlish face. Her long beautiful neck seemed to her like an ungainly stalk upon which was perched a sad-eyed ridiculous head of a whore past her prime. (11.6)
…And we get an equally intimate look at Father's aging:
He found he preferred to sit in the parlor, his feet near a small electric heater. Everyone in the family treated him like a convalescent. His son brought him beef tea. The boy had grown taller. [...] Father felt childlike beside him. (14.2)
This omniscience allows us to get a variety of different takes on the Ragtime Age and the stories that comprise Ragtime. It gives us a super-comprehensive look at not just individual opinions concerning the time period, but of the scope of the time period.
But keep in mind that the story of Ragtime is not being told during the period it's set in. The narrator has the benefit of knowing history, as we see in this quote:
And by that time the era of Ragtime had run out, with the heavy breath of the machine, as if history were no more than a tune on a player piano. (40.24)
Huh. The narrator knows how history unfolds during the 20th century, how long individual eras last, and how all sorts of events ended up shaping America. Really, the narrator ends up sounding a whole lot like a literary sort of dude in, say, the 1970s. Lookin' at you, Doctorow. We know your game.
Just so's you know, we're ignoring the (awesome) subplots of this novel and focusing on the tragedy of Coalhouse. We're considering his plot to be the main plot, because it's a total character arc and a super-good story.
At the beginning Coalhouse is an accomplished pianist with a motorcar and lifestyle that is unlike the majority of fellow African-Americans at the time. Life is good. But remember, this is the beginning of a tragedy. It's not going to stay that way.
But things progress in an aww-inspiring manner for at least a little while: Coalhouse attempts to court Sarah, the mother of his child, and she agrees to marry him. This all seems so sweet, like the best happily-ever-after fodder.
On the way home from visiting Sarah, Coalhouse's car is vandalized by a volunteer Fire House. It's super disgusting: they poop in the backseat of his shiny new automobile. Coalhouse goes to the police and asks them what he can do, but they just say "Oops, oh well. You're a black guy, so just clean off the seat and drive away." Coalhouse is not amused.
As the action of the story heats up, Sarah is killed and Coalhouse seeks revenge by bombing firehouses and killing police and firemen. An overreaction? Depends on who you're asking. Coalhouse just lost the love of his life, and he's also sick and tired of being treated like a second-class citizen because of the color of his skin.
After seizing J.P. Morgan's library, Coalhouse negotiates with Booker T. Washington, among others. Initially, he asks for both his car back (in mint condition, of course: no poop in sight) and for them to hand over Fire Chief Conklin. They talk him down.
Coalhouse says, fine. They can keep their Fire Chief (he's gross, anyhow) but he still wants his car. Coalhouse gets his car back but is killed when he emerges from the library. It's totally set up: the cops say he was running, but we know better: Coalhouse doesn't run from anyone or anything.
The itty-bitty, teeny-weeny silver lining in this gigantic hurricane of a cloud is that Coalhouse was sick of living anyway. After Sarah died, life meant nothing to him.
We enter Ragtime's New York as the city (and the world) is poised for big changes. It's the turn of the century and society is positioned like a sprinter on the block. From the role of women to race relations to labor rights: everything is about to speed up and change up.
While Father's gone in the Arctic, Mother discovers a newborn baby in the backyard. This, as you can imagine, is a huge shocker. This leads to the appearance of Coalhouse Walker, whose car is vandalized by a nearby volunteer Fire Department one day while he's heading home to Harlem. As life in turn of the century America gets more complicated and conflicted, so does life in this weird house of people with super-literal names.
After the death of his fiancée and lack of justice concerning his car, Coalhouse launches a series of bombing attacks on firehouses and ends up seizing J.P. Morgan's library. This novel's climax literally comes with a bang.
After some negotiations, Coalhouse gets his car back good as new, but when he emerges from the Morgan Library he is shot and killed. As Coalhouse falls, so does this novel's action.
The country marches toward progress and war. Father dies on the Lusitania and Mother's Younger Brother dies in Mexico. Mother marries Tateh, who takes her and all the children to California to live. Not everything is wrapped up neatly with a pretty bow on top, but the era of Ragtime (and ragtime music) is over.
While Father is away on a voyage to the (brrr) Arctic, Mother discovers a newborn baby buried in the backyard. It's like the world's creepiest Easter egg hunt. The father of the baby, Coalhouse Walker, visits the family weekly to see his fiancée and the baby. When his car is vandalized on a trip home and his fiancée is killed, he vows revenge on the vandals.
And that's just our main story. Tons of stuff is happening elsewhere: Tateh rises from living in grimy tenements to making flipbooks, Evelyn Nesbit is all sorts of tied up with her husband's trial, and Freud visits America and does not like it one bit.
Coalhouse seeks his revenge on the city, bombing firehouses and killing firemen and policemen. It's like the world's goriest Valentine to his murdered sweetheart. With his gang, he seizes the J.P. Morgan Library and holds its contents.
Father and Mother's marriage is puttering along in a yawn-inducing manner (um, maybe because their only names are "Mother" and "Father"?), Tateh's career is on the rise, and Mother's younger brother (yeah, his name is Younger Brother) joins forces with Coalhouse. There's probably someone in America that's just having a calm, lovely time, but we surely don't see it. Everyone we meet is frantic and getting their drama on.
Coalhouse gets his car back but is shot and killed by the police: they claim he was running from them but he absolutely was not. He's only the first character we see kick the bucket in this morbid Act III: as the Ragtime era draws to a close and World War I begins, Father dies aboard the Lusitania and Younger Brother dies in Mexico.
Mother later marries Tateh, a Jewish immigrant, and they move with the children to California. Sheesh. At least someone got their happy ending.
Historical figures show up as often in Ragtime as sunburns at a music festival, so we're citing first mention only.