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Ragtime

E. L. Doctorow

Part I, Chapters 10–12

Part I, Chapters 7–9

Part I, Chapter 13; Part II, Chapters 14 and 15

Summary

Chapter 10

Father writes every day during the winter from his expedition with Peary, an experienced explorer. Their boat, the Roosevelt, provides a surprisingly comfortable home, and Peary has developed a very precise system in which the expedition proceeds. His assistant, Matthew Henson, supervises the training. Father adopts the view that the Eskimo men with whom the team works are primitive and child-like; he also notices that they have no shame about their sexuality. As Peary's team nears the North Pole, it grows harder to break the trail, which requires cracking huge ridges of ice. After presenting Peary with a flag to place on the North Pole, Father soon returns to New Rochelle while the other members of the team proceed further north. However, when Peary reaches what he believes is the North Pole, his observations refuse to satisfy him; they take pictures to commemorate the event, but the figures become indistinguishable in the light.

Chapter 11

Taft becomes President; the narrator comments of the role of the consumption of food as a symbol of success. Evelyn Nesbit and Mother's Younger Brother make love often, but find little to speak about otherwise. Mother's Younger Brother helps Evelyn search for Tateh and his little girl, but to no avail. Goldman criticizes Evelyn in her acceptance of the role of a sex goddess; Evelyn in turn donates significant funds to various causes, but she remains unhappy nonetheless. Evelyn finds that she misses Stanford White; Harry K. Thaw's lawyers finalize their divorce by paying her $25,000.

Chapter 12

Tateh worries about the conditions in which his daughter lives in New York. With his life savings of thirty dollars in his pocket, Tateh and his daughter Sha ride the streetcar uptown until they leave New York City. They ride through New Rochelle, where Sha observes the little boy. They travel through Greenwich, Stamford, Norwalk, Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford, Springfield, and Boston. Tateh feels relieved and joyous to see his daughter become more cheerful as they leave the city.

Analysis

Father and Peary hold very racist views about the Eskimos with whom they travel to the North Pole. Doctorow employs a narrative technique that partly reflects their attitudes and partly employs Doctorow's own ironic tone. He writes, "There was no question that the Esquimos were primitives. They were affectionate, gentle, emotional, trustworthy and full of pranks. They loved to laugh and sing." By juxtaposing these two narrative voices, Doctorow effectively emphasizes the ridiculous nature of their prejudices. For example, he writes, "Peary defined the virtues of Esquimos as loyalty and obedience, roughly the same virtues one sought in the dogs." By equating Peary's expectations of Eskimos to those of dogs, Doctorow exposes the true nature of racism, while simultaneously inserting his own views on racism. Peary also conveys to Father his idea that Eskimos must be treated like children; through Father's reaction, Doctorow comments on the contagious nature of racism. He writes, "Father tended to agree with this view, for it suggested a consensus." Implicit in Doctorow's portrayal of Father as the "decent man" is Father's tendency to adhere to the norms of the society in which he lives. Since the majority of Americans living at the turn of the century still embraced racist views, Father concurs, simply for the sake of "consensus."

Doctorow makes many references to the film industry throughout Ragtime, as both an aesthetic and cultural force. Of Evelyn Nesbit he writes, "Thus did Evelyn provide the inspiration for the concept of the movie star system and the model for every sex goddess from Theda Bara to Marilyn Monroe." Emma Goldman, an intermittent presence throughout the novel, and an influential figure for Evelyn, judges her behavior and her role as a "sex goddess." Doctorow writes, "Goldman sent a letter off to Evelyn: I am often asked the question How can the masses permit themselves to be exploited by the few. The answer is By being persuaded to identify with them." With such comments Goldman challenges Evelyn to divert attention away from her own life and to pay more attention to the potential effect her sex symbol status has on the common man and woman. In turn, Evelyn reacts to her feelings of guilt and conscience by donating money to various causes. Doctorow writes, "Even such money as she had, still the bulk of her fortune, left her with strange and inconclusive feelings…. Listlessly she doled out her hard-earned fortune. The public never knew this because she insisted on anonymity. She had no joy." Because money has lost its meaning for Evelyn, her donations fail to constitute a real sacrifice on her part. In addition, the loss of her relationship with Tateh and Sha has hardened her. She continues to exhibit a tendency toward unhealthy relationships with men. Dissatisfied with Mother's Younger Brother, "…she wanted someone who would treat her badly and whom she could treat badly."

In the scene in which Tateh and Sha pass through the town of New Rochelle, Doctorow again employs the motif of interconnectedness. He writes, "[The boy]'s hand was in his mother's hand and as he passed the little girl standing with her ancient father, the boy's eyes looked into hers…. She stood on the rear platform of the trolley car and watched him until she could no longer see him. His eyes had been blue and yellow and dark green, like a school globe." Their extensive eye contact speaks to the depth of their connection. In addition, this passage foreshadows the two children's relationship, which comes to fruition during their time together on Jersey shore.

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