Part I, Chapters 4–6
Mother's Younger Brother continues be obsessed with Evelyn Nesbit, as he supervises the fireworks celebration at a politically sponsored picnic. Meanwhile, Evelyn contemplates her husband Harry K. Thaw's fate. Harry K. Thaw, who has a reputation as a violent man, has little chance of effectively persuading a jury that he had become momentarily deranged at the time of Stanford White's murder. Harry K. Thaw, despite the extremity of his alleged crime, receives much better treatment than the average prisoner at the Tombs.
Harry Houdini also happens to be at the Tombs during Thaw's imprisonment. Having challenged the warden of the jail on the security of the Tombs' cells, Houdini performs an escape from the cell. During this escape, he stumbles upon the cell of Harry K. Thaw, with whom he has a bizarre and unsettling encounter, although only later does Houdini make the connection between this strange man and the killer of Stanford White. Houdini's real name, Erich Weiss, more accurately reflects his Jewish heritage. Houdini has a love for his mother that some consider overly intense. In fact, Sigmund Freud has just arrived in America for the first time; although he receives some respect for his revolutionary ideas on this initial visit, many in his profession consider his ideas unsound and perverted.
On Freud's first visit to the United States, he sees many sights of the city but feels continuously agitated due to the level of noise in the streets. Relieved to return to Vienna, Freud concludes that America is a "gigantic mistake." At the end of the chapter, the narrator discusses the horrible labor conditions of the average worker at this time. Child labor in particular occurs quite often. The situation of "Negroes" of the time involves continued social, racial, and economic discrimination and, often, violence. While many wealthier citizens of America begin to pretend to have a conscience about the growing issue of poverty, their concern superficial and meaningless.
One of the motifs in this novel, which Doctorow repeatedly uses in order to convey the political and social atmosphere in turn-of-the-century America, is the interconnectedness of characters and events. He transitions from plot to plot and from character to character in order to demonstrate to us the relationships between those of varying class positions and differing social views. For example, Chapter Five opens with Mother's Younger Brother and his supervision of the fireworks; his infatuation with Evelyn Nesbit eases the transition into a description of her thoughts on her husband's imminent trial. Her husband Harry Thaw's imprisonment relates to Harry Houdini's struggles to escape from a cell in the Tombs. Harry Houdini's thoughts and feelings then bring his love for his mother to the forefront; Freud, who theorizes about the overly strong love of a son for his mother, visits the United States and reacts negatively toward the country. Doctorow writes, "He had seen in our careless commingling of great wealth and great poverty the chaos of an entropic European civilization." Doctorow then relates these negative impressions to the immigrant condition in order to speak more broadly on labor conditions and social problems. Because the narrator constantly shifts between these elements, we gain a varied and textured perspective.
E. L. Doctorow's own political views become evident at several moments throughout the novel, particularly in the end of Chapter Seven, when the narrative voice becomes less focused on specific characters and more concerned with broader social and political problems of the time. Almost journalistic in tone, the narrator lists statistics about wages and numbers of deaths to convey the extremity of these conditions to the reader. The narration also adopts a heavily ironic tone that accentuates the profound inability of upper class America to relate to or comprehend the status of "the other half." Doctorow writes, "They dined and danced while hanging carcasses of bloody beef trailed around the walls on moving pulleys. Entrails spilled on the floor. The proceeds were for charity." Doctorow demonstrates his heavy criticism for the self- satisfaction that can be a tendency of the upper class. In so doing, he not only address what was historically a crucial time in the nation's development, but also seems to allude to a broader and more universal plea for human right and the decency of the human condition.
The inclusion of Sigmund Freud's character in Ragtime speaks to Doctorow's desire to convey not only economic and political trends, but also changing social views. His introduction of Freud through the description of his first trip to America foreshadows the later widespread significance of his ideas. Doctorow writes, "A few professional alienists understood his importance, but to most of the public he appeared as some kind of German sexologist, an exponent of free love who used big words to talk about dirty things. At least a decade would have to pass before Freud would have his revenge and see his ideas begin to destroy sex in American forever." Here the narrator alludes to the popularization of Freudian concepts later on in the twentieth century, particularly in the 1920s. Freud's studies, along with many other influential factors, profoundly altered America's conception of sexuality, and initiated an increased popular acceptance of more radical ideas about sexual freedom and free love.
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