Study Guide

Tateh in Ragtime


At this point you might start to wonder if Doctorow is just messing with us; the word "tateh" in Yiddish translates to something like "daddy" or "papa." Hey, Doctorow, did you forget? You already have a paternal character with the name Father.

And Doctorow just sits back and grins, because, yeah, he knows what he's doing. We're back to Symbolic (with a capital S) name territory. The distinction between Father and Tateh's paterfamilias styles is right there in the name: Father is formal, cold, removed. Tateh is everything you'd want from a Papa-bear: he's warm, loving, physical and protective. He's also nowhere near as uptight as Father is.

But the symbolic connotations of the character of Tateh don't stop there, oh nonono.

Tateh is a Jewish immigrant, and he also represents an America of possibility and imagination. He comes to the country and is at first enraged by the poverty and the slums he has to live in, while the rich live in "palaces" (3.2). His hair turns white when his wife cheats on him to earn extra money, and he goes about raising his daughter on his own, at first in the horrible conditions of a Lower East Side tenement.

At first, Tateh believes in the American dream that he's come to take part in. But as he works for slave wages, as he loses his wife, and as he nearly loses his daughter during textile mill strike, he understands the toll that a life in the factories will take on him, especially after winning the strike means only "a few more pennies in wages" (17.4). So he becomes an entrepreneur, making a living first off the movie books he creates and then later as a filmmaker.

Yup: Tateh also represents the entrepreneurial spirit. His business sense also runs in opposition with Father's. While Father sells old ideas—flags, his son's weaponry inventions—Tateh makes. Hey, he even makes himself; he's a self-made man.

Tateh is a man of imagination—he even gives himself the title of Baron in order to better disguise his past as a Jewish immigrant. He knows himself and what he has to do to succeed, and Doctorow pays him the compliment of being responsible for a famous series of short films at the end of the book, loosely based on the Our Gang series.

Tateh also marries Mother after Father's death, proving to be a better and more attentive husband than Father ever was. The foreshadowing for Tateh's happy ending was, of course, in his name all along. How could he not marry the last remaining maternal-named character?

But before you start thinking of Tateh as the best thing since sliced bread, remember that he abandoned his wife after she prostituted herself in order to make money for their family. Sure, "I slept with my boss for money" is probably not on the list of Things Every Husband Wants To Hear, but she was in dire straits. But nope: Tateh kicks her to the curb.

This seems horrifically harsh… but at least it paves the way for Tateh to make himself into a new man? We'll leave that morality debate up to you guys.