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Ragtime

E. L. Doctorow

Important Quotations Explained

Part III, Chapters 37–39; Part IV, Chapter 40

Key Facts

Why do you suppose an idea which had currency in every age and civilization of mankind disappears in modern times? Because only in the age of science have these men and their wisdom dropped from view. I'll tell you why: The rise of mechanistic science, of Newton and Descartes, was a great conspiracy, a great devilish conspiracy to destroy our apprehension of reality and our awareness of the transcendentally gifted among us. But they are with us today nevertheless. They are with us in every age. They come back, you see? They come back!

In this quotation from Chapter 20, J.P. Morgan discusses the effect of technology on society as well as on the nature of the individual, a theme which manifests itself in many different instances in Ragtime. With increasing urbanization, industrialization, and mechanization, the turn of the century led many, especially the laborers who were so profoundly and directly affected, to question the benefits of such technology. In suppressing individualism, technological advancements and science in general, Morgan argues, also contribute to a loss of spiritual sensitivity. However, Morgan ultimately believes in the power of the "transcendentally gifted" to retain their importance, despite the barriers presented by the modern world.

It occurred to Father one day that Coalhouse Walker Jr. didn't know he was a Negro. The more he thought about this the more true it seemed. Walker didn't act or talk like a colored man. He seemed to be able to transform the customary deferences practiced by his race so that they reflected to his own dignity rather than the recipient's.

In Chapter 21, Father has what he considers an important revelation: he believes that Coalhouse has no awareness of his race, or of his place in society. Through Coalhouse Walker's character, Doctorow establishes a commentary on race relations during this time in American history. Since Coalhouse conducts himself with 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. Because Coalhouse refuses to adhere to the social norms for his particular race and challenges racial stereotypes, whites often react with resentment and indignation, especially in the case of the New Rochelle authorities which whom he interacts. Doctorow employs an ironic tone to express his disapproval of such prejudice. Despite their mostly good intentions, Mother and Father also tend to endorse the racial attitudes of their time. The above passage demonstrates the extent to which Coalhouse's mannerisms struck Father as highly unacceptable; and, because Father represents the typical white male at the turn of the century, Doctorow thus makes a larger statement about the nation's racial attitudes.

He wandered through the house finding everywhere signs of his own exclusion. His son now had a desk, as befitted all young students. He thought he heard an Arctic wind but it was the sound of the housemaid Brigit pushing an electric suction cleaner across the rug in the parlor. What was the strangest of all was the mirror in his bath: it gave back the gaunt, bearded face of a derelict, a man who lacked a home.

Father's reactions to the changed circumstances he finds upon his return from his trip to the Arctic reflect his growing sense of alienation from his family and his town. In the relatively short time of his absence, his family's dynamics and interactions have undergone considerable change. Again, Doctorow employs the metaphor of duplication to express individual characterizations. The mirror provides an opportunity for self-reflection that, in this instance, depresses Father. His wife's facility with the duties of the family business in his absence, as well as his son's growing maturity and competence, create in Father the feeling that he is unneeded, consequently undermining his sense of his own masculinity.

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.

The story of Mother's Younger Brother and his involvement with Coalhouse has universal relevance. Mother's Younger Brother is a young, idealistic person 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. 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.

He looked in Mother's eyes to detect there his justice. He found instead a woman curious and alert to his new being. He realized that every night since he's returned they had slept in the same bed. She was in some way not as vigorously modest as she'd been. She took his gaze. She came to bed with her hair unbraided. Her hand one night brushed down his chest and same to rest below his nightshirt. He decided that God had punishments in store so devious there was no sense trying to anticipate what they were. With a groan he turned to her and found her ready. Her hand pulling his face to hers did not feel his tears.

This dramatic passage addresses not only the ways in which Mother and Father have changed in each other's absence, but also the differences on their perspectives on sexuality. Father seems to experience a profound sense of immorality in deriving pleasure from sex, as evident in his fear of God's judgment. In this sense, as well as in many of his other social views, Father represents the traditional male at the turn of the century, incapable of real change, resentful of the altered world around him, which is beyond his control, and rigid in his conceptions of morality.

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