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Ragtime

E. L. Doctorow

Part III, Chapters 31–33

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

Part III, Chapters 34–36

Summary

Chapter 31

Father feels uplifted and joyous about the day he has spent with his son at the ballpark. When he arrives home, his wife looks radiant as she tells him of Sarah's boy's newfound ability to walk. Mother and Father discuss their future plans, as it has become more difficult to escape the critical glances and inquiries of their neighbors and friends. Father decides Atlantic City will provide an ideal haven, and the family is particularly grateful for the move. Meanwhile, tension in the town grows as the presence of the press becomes all the more prevalent and blacks found outside their neighborhoods automatically receive harassment. The press, eager to disseminate information on the story, extracts Coalhouse's car for photographing, and in so doing reveals the extent of the damage, an embarrassment to the authorities. Soon, the citizens of New Rochelle make clear their desire for Willie Conklin to leave town; in response, Willie simply drinks to excess. The family moves to Atlantic City in private, unnoticed by the authorities or the townspeople.

Chapter 32

Mother's Younger Brother has disappeared from the household after his conflict with Father over Coalhouse's situation. When the family leaves New Rochelle, they leave a note for him, but he never claims it. Mother's Younger Brother returns to the funeral parlor to attempt to find Coalhouse. After several nights, he finally locates Coalhouse, who asks him why he has come. Despite having prepared an idealistic statement about his reasons, Mother's Younger Brother simply tells him of his ability to fabricate bombs. Coalhouse then accepts him into his group of followers. Younger Brother, with a degree of irony, paints his face black and dresses in the style of Coalhouse's other followers. Coalhouse has translated his grief over Sarah into anger and militancy. Younger Brother keeps a journal of his activities, beginning with his joining Coalhouse's followers and extending through his death in Mexico more than a year later. Coalhouse establishes strict rules about his followers' behavior, but remains respectful of them as well. The revolutionaries begin to collectively call themselves "Coalhouse."

Chapter 33

Mother, Father, and the little boy lead a leisurely life in Atlantic City. While wading, Mother exhibits less modesty than she had previously. She begins to regard Father in a different light, and to grow somewhat restless with him, yet at times she also loves him as she did when they were younger. Mother adjusts to life in Atlantic City quite happily, having only just begun to emerge from her grief over Sarah and to immensely enjoy caring for Sarah's child. One night, Mother sees a ragtime band, which reminds her of Coalhouse and her brother's angry departure; she feels a pang of guilt over her neglect of him. These feelings render her happiness in Atlantic City increasingly precarious. A German man, Captain Von Papen, seems to be attracted to Mother, who reacts by ignoring him. They interact quite a bit with their fellow guests at the hotel, one of whom introduces himself to her as Baron Ashkenazy, a filmmaker who is in fact the Tateh referenced earlier in the novel. The family meets him and his beautiful girl, whom Mother hopes will become friends with her son.

Analysis

Willie Conklin's reaction to the townspeople's treatment of him reflects the racial and class dynamics of the period in which the novel is set. One instance in which these dynamics become evident takes place in chapter thirty-one, when New Rochelle's citizens begin to resent Conklin's presence, and actively pressure him to leave town. Doctorow writes, "From the beginning Conklin had been unable to understand how anyone who was white could feel for him less than the most profound admiration. The more unpopular he became the more piteous his bewilderment." His experience attests to the fact that not only did racism remain prevalent at the turn-of-the-century, but conceptions of class also remained rigid and exclusive. Father's reaction to Conklin's overly casual body language in Chapter 29 certainly demonstrates this exclusion. Conklin discovers that his white skin does not constitute an advantage sufficient for his continued acceptance in the town. In addition, it also speaks to the situation of the Irish population in the United States, who remained for decades a minority suffering from significant prejudice.

In a novel in which history and the nature of historical truth constitute major themes, Doctorow repeatedly brings to our attention process of recording history. For example, Mother's Younger Brother keeps a journal from the time he joins Coalhouse's team of revolutionaries until his death in Mexico. Father also records his adventures during his expedition to the Arctic.

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.

This section of the novel focuses on Mother's emotional, psychological, and intellectual processes of change. Her relationship with her husband undergoes a dramatic transformation after his return from the Arctic. After having found 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. Doctorow writes, "Always she had intuited a different future for them, as if the life they led was a kind of preparation, when the manufacturer of flags and fireworks and his wife would life themselves from their respectable existence and discover a life of genius." 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 enamoured with the concept of the motion picture and the perspective it affords on daily life. Doctorow writes, "The idea of examining through frame what was ordinarily seen by the eye intrigued her." This curiosity soon extends to Tateh, for whom she has growing feelings.

Tateh explains the appeal of the motion picture to Mother and Father. Doctorow writes, "In the movie films, he said, we only look at what is there already. Life shines on the shadow screen, as from the darkness of one's mind. It is a big business. People want to know what is happening to them. For a few pennies they sit and see their selves in movement, running, racing in motorcars, fighting, and forgive me, embracing one another. This is most important today, in this country, where everybody is so new." This passage refers to several important concepts in the novel. A recurrent motif, the lens or frame of the camera enables a different perspective on life through duplication. This duplication provides an opportunity for self-examination and introspection. In addition, Tateh touches upon the ability of the motion picture, inexpensive and widespread, to bring different groups of people together at a time when many immigrant groups experienced tension amongst themselves and with the "native" population.

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