Study Guide

Ragtime Themes

  • Mortality

    Let's face the cold, hard facts: when you set a book beginning in 1902, the characters are going to be pretty prone to bucket-kicking. Besides the obvious fact that 1902 was a looong time ago, turn of the century medicine and life expectancy weren't exactly tops.

    But some of the cast of Ragtime tries to live on forever, either through reincarnation, talking to the dead or that old favorite: death-defying fame. But what Ragtime is really interested in is showing us a world where death is the ultimate equalizer, whether you're rich like J.P. Morgan or a poor sandhog dying beneath the East River digging a tunnel. Even in a world as divided by class as Gilded Age/Progressive Era America, death comes for us all.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Why do you think J.P. Morgan's health fails so soon after his last trip to Egypt?
    2. In your opinion, why does Harry Houdini first start trying to contact the dead?
    3. Do people seem to accept death more readily during the time of the novel than they do today?
    4. Why do you think Doctorow has Father die on board the Lusitania after it's torpedoed by the Germans?

    Chew on This

    In Ragtime, death is arbitrary and final, and the idea that there is reincarnation or an afterlife is simply a sign of man's foolishness.

    Ragtime shows us that fame is the only way man is ever immortal.

  • Women and Femininity

    Ragtime has its finger on the pulse of turn-of-the-century women's rights. And dang did things need fixing back then. From not being able to vote to being constricted into those strange metal torture devices known as corsets, women had it rough back in the day. But the times started a-changing around 1900, and Doctorow gives us front-row seats to the show.

    We see Mother take over the family business while Father's gone and discover her sexuality (get it, gurl). We see Evelyn Nesbit, the first sex symbol in America, and Emma Goldman, the anarchist who wears free flowing clothes and likens marriage to prostitution. In all three characters Doctorow shows a type of woman who was unthinkable only decades before in the uber-stuffy Victorian era.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. What might have happened to Mother if Father hadn't taken his trip to the Arctic?
    2. Why does Emma Goldman think of marriage as a form of prostitution?
    3. Why does Evelyn Nesbit have an affair with Mother's Younger Brother, who has been stalking her?
    4. Why do you think Doctorow doesn't pay more attention to the tragedy of Mameh after Tateh throws her out for sleeping with her employer to pay their rent?

    Chew on This

    Had Mother's story occurred just a generation earlier, she would have stayed with Father and never remarried.

    Evelyn Nesbit sets back the women's movement rather than advancing it.

  • Repression

    The Victorian Era is synonymous with being uptight. No one talked about sex. Everyone buttoned up: men wore stuffy wool clothes despite the heat, and women wore so many petticoats they looked like parachutes.

    Ragtime portrays the era immediately after the Victorian Era when people still had all kinds of hang-ups even though things had gotten slightly more relaxed. There's lots of confusion about what is sexually proper in this novel, and people act out sexually in a variety of kinky ways. All this points to a slightly skewed (and repressed) obsession with sex: people ain't living in the Victorian Era any more, but they sure haven't reached the freedom of the roaring 1920s.

    Questions About Repression

    1. How does Father view the Eskimos, and how are his views hypocritical?
    2. Why does Evelyn Nesbit put up with Harry K. Thaw's abuse, and why she does testify at his trial?
    3. How does clothing symbolize repression?
    4. Does Father's sexual repression ever improve during the novel?

    Chew on This

    When women act badly in Ragtime, it is a direct result of the sexually repressive era they live in.

    Ragtime goes out of style after 1918 as America embraces jazz and an even less repressed society.

  • Injustice

    Ragtime portrays a world that is chock full of injustice. You want racist injustice? Look no further than the fire house's treatment of Coalhouse Walker. You want xenophobic injustice? There is the plight of the immigrants in their tenements. How about classist injustice? Check out the children who die because of malnourishment and disease.

    Doctorow does not present the Gilded Age/Progressive Era as very forgiving… because it wasn't. Doctorow shows us an arbitrary world where people lived and died simply because of where they were from, or their class, or the color of their skin.

    Questions About Injustice

    1. Is Coalhouse Walker too stubborn in his reaction to the vandalism of his car?
    2. Why do you think Doctorow doesn't let Coalhouse kill Chief Conklin?
    3. How are the wealthy people in the novel portrayed, in terms of justice towards the poor?
    4. What is the novel's attitude towards the working class and unions?

    Chew on This

    The most horrific injustice in Ragtime is that of the injustice towards children; Ragtime condemns child labor above all else.

    Tateh sees injustice all around him, but rather than fight it, he learns to use his talents to rise above it.

  • Change

    The turn of the century was a massive time of change; it came at the end of what was called the freaking Age of Invention, and right before what got to be known as the Progressive Era. Yup: squashed between invention and progress, the turn of the 20th century turned everything around.

    From worker's rights to women's rights, change dominated this era. But change itself isn't the whole story. It's how the characters react to change in Ragtime that is the story. Father is lost in his own country as the role of women and African-Americans changes before his eyes, while Mother and Tateh embrace change and are carried forward by it.

    Questions About Change

    1. Which characters in the novel seem to have the easiest time accepting change?
    2. What change does Evelyn Nesbit represent in American culture?
    3. What changes have people resisted since our own turn of the century (from the 20th to the 21st)?
    4. In the novel, is all change progress? Or is some change regression?

    Chew on This

    Had Father been born fifty years earlier, he would have been a much happier man.

    Change is inherently violent, as we see in the actions of characters like Coalhouse.

  • Time

    In Ragtime, time is the steady left hand bass line of a ragtime song. But the right hand is playing all sorts of things that make that passage of time special.

    Doctorow is kind of a wizard. He's able to go inside the moments of history, to inhabit the New York of 1910, and then pull back and show us not only what people were thinking, but why they were thinking the way they were… and why it would change in the future. Pretty snazzy. How does he do it, you ask? Well, this novel finds those moments in an era when the tide of opinion is changing.

    Questions About Time

    1. What trick does Doctorow use with Mother's Younger Brother to condense time? Is this effective?
    2. How does Ragtime show the process of aging? Do certain characters age more rapidly than others? If so, why?
    3. What is behind J.P. Morgan's fascination with Egypt? What do you make of the claim that ancient Egypt was especially fashionable at the turn of the century?

    Chew on This

    The characters that end up happy are the ones who embrace the passage of time. The characters that do not embrace the passage of time end up fairly miserable.

    Thought it's written about the period between 1900 and 1917, Ragtime is colored by the time Doctorow was writing in: the early 1970s.

  • Foreignness and 'The Other'

    Ragtime is set during one of the hugest immigration waves in American history: we'll bet you a box of glazed donuts (just so you know we're not messing around, because donuts) that you know someone that is descended from the people who arrived in America between 1900 and 1917.

    Ragtime is as much about immigrants coming to America as it is about the folks like Henry Ford who despise them. Doctorow is good at detailing both the "American dream" that immigrants come looking for, and the harsh reality of the prejudice and poverty they face.

    Questions About Foreignness and 'The Other'

    1. Why does Freud think America is a "huge mistake?"
    2. What do you think happens to Mameh after Tateh throws her out of the house for sleeping with her employer?
    3. What is the difference between attitudes towards immigrants in the novel and attitudes toward immigration in this day and age?
    4. Why is Father described as an alien in his own country?

    Chew on This

    Ragtime is a novel about the fact that the American Dream is just that… an unrealistic dream.

    America is more of a quilt (like Doctorow describes it) than a melting pot.

  • Technology and Modernization

    The era of Ragtime overlaps with what is known as the Progressive Era. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what that means: tons o' progress. This means worker's rights and women's rights… and it also means technological change.

    Henry Ford's new Model T and his assembly line can create cars faster than ever before, which means more and more people can afford them. Flip books are turning into early movies. Fireworks are becoming bombs. The wheels of modernity are spinning freely, churning out both the good (movies: hooray!) and the bad (bombs: boo).

    Questions About Technology and Modernization

    1. What technology has the biggest effect on American culture in the novel?
    2. What is Henry Ford's view of the American worker?
    3. Does Doctorow view technology and modernization as good or bad?
    4. Why does Doctorow give Younger Brother, who's responsible for inventing numerous weapons, such a lost and lonely personality?

    Chew on This

    According to Ragtime, modern technology is more beneficial than it is dangerous. Technology is a force for equality in this novel.

    It's fitting that Henry Ford's idea for the assembly line was inspired by a slaughterhouse. Ragtime portrays modernization as almost apocalyptically scary.