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Ragtime

E. L. Doctorow

Part II, Chapter 28; Part III, Chapters 29 and 30

Part II, Chapters 25–27

Part III, Chapters 31–33

Summary

Chapter 28

The explosion Houdini and his audience heard has come from Emerald Isle Firehouse; this incident results in the hospitalization of two volunteer firemen and the deaths of four others. Some of the firemen appear to have been killed by buckshots rather than by the fire or the explosion. The New York City Police Department reconstructs the situation. At 10:30 p.m., six firemen had been playing poker when the alarm rang. They had reacted quickly, piling into the engine and setting off into the road, where they had encountered shotguns yielded by someone standing in the engine's path. The driver of the engine fell from a fatal shot, and two other firemen died from gunshots. The fourth death had resulted when the engine fell on another fireman. Meanwhile, Father hears the explosion and initially fears his fireworks plant has been damaged. The newspaper identifies the killer as a black male who had held a fireman by his head of hair, demanding to know the whereabouts of Willie Conklin. At the dinner table, no one wants to eat, and Father lays the blame on Mother for the situation with Coalhouse Walker. Father and Mother's Younger Brother come into conflict when Father criticizes Coalhouse's approach to the situation and Mother's Younger Brother reminds him of Coalhouse's great sense of loss. Coalhouse had sent letters to the two major newspapers to inform them of his involvement with the attack as well as to reiterate his demands that his car be returned in its original condition.

Chapter 29

The narrator recounts some details of Father's upbringing. An only child born and raised in White Plains, New York, Father had a pleasant childhood, although his mother died when he was fourteen years old. His father had come from a quite wealthy family, but had squandered his riches on failed speculations; he died suddenly when Father was still young. Father attended Groton and Harvard, and invested the little money he had in a fireworks business that he eventually bought and expanded quite successfully. Father feels increasingly distant from his wife, as her body appears less attractive to him, and she has focused her energy on her grief for Sarah and on Sarah's boy. Father passes much of his time at the police station; although he will not identify this as his motive, he feels secure there. One day, several black men appear outside a firehouse, shoot a policeman dead, and throw several packages through the windows of the firehouse. One of the men gives the surviving policeman a letter to give to the newspapers to publish, as the firehouse sustains several explosions within. The town tightens its security, and people become reluctant to leave their homes. The press begins to harass the family about their role in Coalhouse's activities, and Mother's bitterness toward her husband grows with the tension. Father realizes his alienation from his family members, and becomes particularly concerned about his relationship with the boy. He invites the boy to a ball game the following day, and he accepts.

Chapter 30

Father and the boy attend a baseball game, and Father is struck by the changes in the game. He recalls a more civilized enterprise, rather than the teams full of immigrants that have become prevalent. He remarks upon and becomes mystified by his sense of nostalgia.

Analysis

At the end of Chapter 28, Doctorow clearly juxtaposes the social status of Father and Coalhouse Walker, as well as addressing the psychological effects of their differences. The story of the explosion in the firehouse addresses the anger that can result from injustice and prejudice. After having devoted the entire chapter to a description of Coalhouse's behavior, Doctorow concludes the chapter in writing, "In the morning Father took the North Avenue streetcar downtown. He strode to City Hall. He went in the door a widely respected businessman in the community. His career as an explorer had been well reported in the newspapers. The flag that flew from the cupola on top of the building had been his gift to the city." Here Doctorow addresses the large gap between the social status of Father and that of Coalhouse; this gap only grows with Coalhouse's increasingly criminal actions.

Chapters 29 and 30 provide an essential perspective on Father's character, as it seeks in his upbringing an explanation of who he has become, both in 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." After he had become accustomed to his lifestyle at Groton and Harvard, Father had difficulty letting go of his moneyed roots as well as the level of intellectual engagement he experienced at such institutions. Doctorow writes of Father's thoughts on a William James lecture he attended at Harvard, "Exploration became his passion: he wanted to avoid what the great Dr. James had called the habit of inferiority to the full self." In addition, Doctorow implies Father's sense of the deterioration and downward spiral of his life when he writes, "He wondered if his dislike for Coalhouse Walker, which had been instantaneous, was based not on the man's color but on his being engaged in an act of courtship, a suspenseful enterprise that suggested the best of life was yet to come."

While the above passages address his psychological state, the following passages address his social views. In writing of his interactions with the fire chief, Willie Conklin, Doctorow writes, "[Willie Conklin's] assumption of social equality was galling…. Once he actually put his hand on Father's shoulder, a gesture of such alarming brotherhood that it felt like an electric shock." This reaction on his part emphasizes his rigid definitions of class. Father also reacts toward immigrants with views and 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."

In Ragtime, repetition manifests as both a structuring principal of the novel's plot and a major thematic concept. When Father takes his son to a ballgame in chapter thirty, Doctorow writes, "He turned to his son. What is it you like about this game, he said. The boy did not remove his gaze from the diamond. The same thing happens over and over, he said." In this instance, the boy finds repetition appealing as it provides a certain reassurance; however, in other instances in the novel, repetition creates a sense of meaningless in the characters.

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