Mother's reactions to her changing environment provide us with important insights into her emotional, psychological, and intellectual processes of change. Her relationship with her husband undergoes a dramatic transformation after his return from the Arctic. After finding the tasks of the family business both simple and somewhat boring, Mother loses the respect she had had for his professional life. Mother's hosting of and caring for Sarah and her baby have also changed her. Although she still feels love for her husband on occasion, it constitutes the old love of friends or family members rather than the passionate love of lovers. Mother has become an idealistic and creative dreamer, while Father, resistant to change, has remained dull and static. Mother's dissatisfaction with her husband, and in particular the ways in which he fails to satisfy her, foreshadows her subsequent union with Tateh. Mother grows enamored with the concept of the motion picture and the perspective it affords on daily life. Mother's transformations manifest themselves most clearly in her increasing awareness of her own sexuality. Mother and Father have drastically different perspectives on sexuality. While Father seems to experience a profound sense of immorality in deriving pleasure from sex, Mother exalts in her growing awareness of her sexuality.
Father's character plays an allegorical role in the novel, as he represents the traditional norms of late nineteenth century America. As such, he finds it difficult to come to terms with the changes he witnesses in the Progressive Era. His feelings of isolation and bewilderment reflect an attitude prevalent among many Americans at this point in history. The reader can often sense that he almost resents these changes in his family as well; such widespread resentment provided the impetus for much of the anti-immigration fervor in the United States. Doctorow provides the reader with some background information of Father's upbringing, essential to an understanding of his thoughts and actions, as well as his psychological makeup and his social views. Although he had been born into an intellectual upper class East Coast family, his own father had squandered their family money as Father finished school and became independent. Doctorow writes, "His flamboyance had produced in his lonely son a personality that was cautious, sober, industrious and chronically unhappy." In addition, Father's interactions with Willie Conklin emphasize his rigid definitions of class, and his reactions to the baseball team, largely comprised of immigrants, exemplify stereotypes typical of many Americans at the turn of the century. When he attends the ballgame with his son, he can only compare these games, which have many immigrant players, to his own Harvard games twenty years earlier. Doctorow writes, "He was disturbed by his nostalgia. He'd always thought of himself as progressive." Emotionally, Father appears perpetually lost in his attempts to adjust to his changing environment, partly due to his lack of reception to these changes. Doctorow writes of Father, "the immigrant, as in every moment of his life, arriving eternally on the shore of his Self." Implicit in this passage is the narrator's observation that although Father clearly occupies a socio-economic position separate than that of the cast majority of immigrants, his emotional state resembles that of an immigrant. Because he never attains a profound self-knowledge, his social and economic status remain irrelevant, and he appears perpetually lost.
The story of Mother's Younger Brother and his involvement with Coalhouse has universal relevance. Like many others throughout history, Mother's Younger Brother is a young, idealistic male with little direction in life. However, when he joins Coalhouse's group of revolutionaries, he finally feels as if his life contains a sense of purpose. Doctorow writes, "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." However, Mother's Younger Brother ultimately meets his death while engaged in such an idealistic battle. In this manner, Doctorow conveys the notion that such a wholehearted commitment may also prove painful for both the young revolutionary himself and those closest to him.
Coalhouse Walker, the black musician and the lover of Sarah, has incredible import to the main themes of the novel. His characterization provides insight into race relations in turn-of-the-century America. Many characters react strongly to his mannerisms, as they believe his social position does not warrant such behavior. Because Coalhouse conducts himself with a sense of pride atypical of African Americans at this point in history, his expectations of how he should be treated repeatedly come into direct conflict with others' expectations of how African Americans should be treated. Coalhouse Walker, then, represents all African Americans who challenge the expectations many whites have of them. However, his character ultimately becomes the quintessential angry black male as he resorts to violence to resolve his feelings toward society.
An incredibly dynamic character, Tateh begins to challenge his old life and seek a better one about halfway through the novel. He realistically assesses the value of a life such as the one he has had and has shown his daughter, and finds the hardships outweigh the joys. Emotionally, Tateh begins to see the toll life in New York has taken on him. Tateh also experiences a crucial and meaningful feeling of separation from his previous socio-economic position after reaching the pinnacle of his disillusionment with the American dream. Although earlier in his life, and in his stay in the United States, he has possessed idealism and a sense of promise, he loses hope as his efforts toward social equality consistently fail to reap substantial rewards. He soon demonstrates his entrepreneurial abilities through the sale of the movie books he has designed and exhibits a more profound understanding of how to succeed in a capitalist system.