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Ragtime

E. L. Doctorow

Part III, Chapters 34–36

Part III, Chapters 31–33

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

Summary

Chapter 34

Tateh works diligently on his photoplay project. As the two families, Mother, Father and their little boy, and Tateh and his little girl, become more familiar with one another, the boy and the girl begin to spend a lot of time together playing on the beach. Tateh invents a baronry for himself to facilitate his acceptance in a Christian world; he wishes to erase from his daughter's memory the horrible days they spent in their Lower East Side tenement. One day, the two children seek shelter under a boardwalk when a heavy storm sweeps through the area. Mother and Tateh become frantic while searching for them without any initial success; when they finally find them, they have a giddy reunion. Father grows bored and restless at the beach, particularly because he becomes concerned over the success of his business. The morning after the rainstorm, Father reads that Coalhouse and his followers have broken into J.P. Morgan's library on 35th Street; shortly after, the District Attorney's office in Manhattan contacts him and he leaves for New York.

Chapter 35

The group had originally planned to take Morgan as a prisoner in his own home; however, they soon discover his absence. They mistakenly attack the library rather than the residence, where Mother's Younger Brother throws a grenade which kills a guard. At this time, Morgan is aboard the S.S. Carmania bound for Rome, en route to his eventual destination of Egypt. Police cordon off the block of Morgan's property and keep the area under constant surveillance. Many city authorities seem hesitant to control the operation; that duty soon falls to the District Attorney of New York, Charles S. Whitman. Whitman decides to send a patrolman to investigate the number of people in the residence, at which point a gunshot kills the patrolman.

Chapter 36

Following the advice of one of the veteran police officers, Whitman attempts to talk to Coalhouse from outside the building; in reaction, Coalhouse throws a collectible tankard containing a telephone number out the window. Whitman calls Coalhouse, who reiterates to him his desire that his original demands be met, and that Conklin die for Sarah's death. The police arrest Emma Goldman, despite her lack of connection to Coalhouse. Whitman contacts Booker T. Washington to request his presence at the Morgan library; Booker T. Washington indeed leaves with the intent of persuading Coalhouse to end his siege.

Analysis

Chapter 34 describes in depth the relationship between the boy and the girl. Doctorow employs a technique of repetition in order to emphasize the differences between the two children. The passage contains a series of sentences that use the same structure, beginning with "she," and "he." He comments on their obvious physical differences, and then broadens the scope of description to include their backgrounds. For example, of Sha, he writes, "She had relieved herself in wooden tenements. The tails of rodents had curled about her ankles." Of the little boy he writes, "He had never gone without a meal. He had never been cold at night…. A blue and green planet rolled through his eyes."

In addition, for the first time in the novel, Chapter 34 explicitly references Tateh's growing feelings for Mother. As Tateh and Mother search for their children after the storm, they appear united in their purpose. Especially in the description of their giddy feelings following the discovery of their children, Doctorow indicates a certain lighthearted but meaningful bond between them. He writes, "Tateh could not help but notice how Mother's white dress and underclothes lay against her so that ellipses of flesh pressed through." In placing Tateh, Mother, the little boy, and the little girl together in a scene, Doctorow helps the reader envision them as a family, and, in the process, foreshadows their later reunion. After a lengthy description of these occurrences, Doctorow effectively establishes Father's exclusion from this bond by, in a new paragraph, writing, "Father slept through the incident."

Doctorow uses his characters as allegorical figures throughout Ragtime. For example, in Chapter 35, Doctorow writes, "Two nights of discussion had turned up the candidacy of Pierpont Morgan. More than any mayor or governor he represented in Coalhouse's mind the power of the white world. For years he had been portrayed in cartoons and caricatures, with his cigar and his top hat, as the incarnation of power." Although, as Doctorow points out in the beginning of Chapter 35, Willie Conklin occupies a socio-economic status far inferior to that of Pierpont Morgan, Coalhouse and his followers have agreed on Morgan as an appropriate target. This failure to distinguish a white man of wealth and a white man of poverty further addresses the racial nature of the conflict. For Coalhouse, following his failure to locate and harm Willie Conklin, has begun to seek vengeance against all whites. After questioning this approach, Doctorow inquires, "Or is injustice, once suffered, a mirror universe, with laws of logic and principles of reason the opposite of civilization's?" Here the author addresses the more universal question of the definition of justice and the possibility, or impossibility, of truly righting a wrong that has been done.

In Chapter 36, the authorities arrest Emma Goldman for her supposed involvement in Coalhouse's siege of the Morgan property; however, she in fact has had no role in the incident. Doctorow uses this police action to address the tendency of the authorities to unfairly accuse leaders they may consider threatening. Doctorow writes, "There was a national obsession of law enforcement officers to connect her to every case just as a matter of principle whether they believed she was guilty or not." Here the author addresses both the possibility of injustice in the government's treatment of non-conformist leaders and recurrent trend in American history toward thought control and the suppression of potentially powerful movements.

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