On her return trip from visiting her husband at the Tombs, Evelyn Nesbit notices that none of the usual reporters follow her car. She takes advantage of this opportunity to explore the city a bit; her driver takes her to the Lower East Side, where she becomes enchanted with a little girl in a pinafore, and demands that the chauffeur stop in the street. As she approaches the girl, she realizes that a piece of clothesline attached at the girl's wrist connects her to an old man's waist. A silhouette artist, Tateh, produces a silhouette for Evelyn Nesbit. He answers her concerns about the clothesline by explaining to her that many children are stolen from their parents and subsequently sold as slaves. Outraged, Evelyn Nesbit demands to know where the parents are. The old man gives a moving account of his circumstances, explaining that he is the girl's father; her mother offered herself to earn money for the family, and he has driven her away as a result. Although the man, also the president of the Socialist Artists' Alliance of the Lower East Side, is only thirty-two years old, he appears much older, as his hair has gone white in the last month. Evelyn Nesbit pays continual visits to the man and his daughter by having many silhouettes rendered. While the press accuses her of having affairs with other men, she cares little, and persists in taking these secret journeys to the Lower East Side. One day, after failing to find Tateh and the little girl on their usual corner, Evelyn Nesbit visits their tenement home, where she learns that the little girl has become ill. Evelyn nurses the girl back to health while Tateh returns to work; Evelyn considers, and rejects, the notion of kidnapping the little girl, with whom she has grown truly infatuated. Meanwhile, Mother's Younger Brother begins to follow Evelyn on a regular basis, fueling his secret love for her.
Tateh, Evelyn Nesbit, and the little girl attend a socialist meeting whose featured speaker, Emma Goldman, recognizes Evelyn in the audience. In her speech, whose subject is her disbelief in the institution of marriage, Emma Goldman identifies Evelyn Nesbit as employing her sexuality to gain prominence in capitalistic society. Tateh glares at Evelyn with hatred and disappears into the chaotic crowd. Emma Goldman leads Evelyn to her home, where she criticizes her behavior and recounts the events of her youth and her fight for labor rights. She undresses her, urging her to rid herself of her uncomfortable and restrictive clothing. Mother's Younger Brother, who has followed the two women into Goldman's apartment and hidden in her closet, bursts forth, naked, at the moment of his sexual climax.
The narration returns to New Rochelle, where Mother becomes worried about and angry toward her brother. One day she discovers a newborn baby, still alive, buried in the garden. She rescues the baby and reports the incident to the police. Soon the family learns a black washwoman nearby has buried the baby; Mother accepts responsibility for both the mother and the child.
Evelyn Nesbit, despite her lower class background, has risen to a level of fame that has provided her with a comfortable lifestyle. Her adventure into the Lower East Side, therefore, addresses her naivete about the immigrant condition. She becomes shocked when she learns about the hardships of life on the streets and in the tenements. Once she befriends Tateh and his little girl, she becomes infatuated with the girl, and exhibits some motherly behaviors toward her, as well as identifying with the girl's mother. The irony lies in the fact that while Evelyn does not envy the family's poverty, she becomes covetous of their little girl. Having had no children of her own, Evelyn experiences the maternal yearnings that reflect the missed opportunities of her life.
Emma Goldman plays an essential role in the novel, as she forces Evelyn Nesbit to examine her lifestyle. When Emma brings Evelyn home in chapter eight, she criticizes the choices Evelyn has made. Goldman, a strong supporter of the truth, attempts to convince Evelyn of the futility of the lies by which he has lived her life. She says, "Because like all whores you value propriety. You are a creature of capitalism, the ethics of which are so totally corrupt and hypocritical that your beauty is no more than the beauty of gold, which is to say false and cold and useless." Emma Goldman's strongly feminist principles also come into play during her interactions with Evelyn; she disapproves of the restrictive corset Evelyn wears to maintain her youthful and attractive appearance, and her appeal to men; Goldman advocates a more natural look. Goldman also tries to demonstrate to Evelyn that the two women do not have as many differences as she might think. Doctorow writes, "We know, don't we? Both of us what it means to have a man in jail. The two women looked at each other. There was silence for some moments. Of course your man is a pervert, a parasite, a leech. A foul loathsome sybarite. But there are correspondences, you see? Our lives correspond, our spirits touch each other like notes in harmony, and in the total human fate, we are sisters." In creating this bond between the two women, and in recounting some of her life struggles, Goldman enables Evelyn to contemplate how their lives might simply be a matter of differing circumstances and choices.
E.L. Doctorow often employs unconventional capitalization and punctuation to place emphasis on certain aspects of the novel. For example, he never uses quotation marks in the novel's dialogues. In addition, he capitalizes the words Mother, Mother's Younger Brother, and Father. The reader never learns their names; in this way, Doctorow implies that this upper class family could be any other upper class family. Its generic quality speaks to Doctorow's objective of addressing the widespread nature of this family's mentality.
The narrative voice in Ragtime provides a particularly interesting perspective. Although the narration often focuses on the little boy's perspective, it also refers to the little boy in the third person. Therefore, the narrative style might be described as third-person omniscient. However, Doctorow employs additional elements that make the narration more complex; for example, it seems that the narrator has historical perspective. For this reason, many critics believe the narrator is in fact the same little boy many years later, around the publication of the novel in 1974.