Skip over navigation

Ragtime

E. L. Doctorow

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

Part I, Chapters 10–12

Part II, Chapters 16–18

Summary

Chapter 13

Houdini makes constant efforts to perform what he considers the ultimate escape; however, none of his accomplishments seem to satisfy him. However, he soon begins to learn how to fly planes, which renews his enthusiasm. He also conducts informal session on the art of flying for German officers. One morning, his friend, who is the Commandant of the Imperial German Army, requests the Houdini perform a demonstration of flight practices. Unaware of his audience, Houdini later meets the individual in the white car for which he had flown the plane, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, accompanied by the Countess Sophie. The somewhat confused Archduke congratulates Houdini on the invention of the airplane.

Chapter 14

Father arrives home after his journey to the Arctic to find his wife holding the child of the black washwoman Sarah, who almost always remains in her room upstairs, sulking. Father experiences a feeling a profound isolation from his family and his former life in New Rochelle. His wife seems to have become less "vigorously modest" in his absence. His son now demonstrates competence and maturity. Mother has also learned to manage the duties of the family business in her husband's absence. Mother's Younger Brother, increasingly tortured over his infatuation with Evelyn Nesbit, as well as by her rejections of him, builds a small bomb, whose function he demonstrates for his father.

Chapter 15

The boy has a fondness for items that have been previously neglected or discarded. Grandfather tells him the stories of Ovid involving transformations and illusions. The boy develops an increased sense of his own self, his manhood, and his vanity.

Analysis

In chapter thirteen, Doctorow introduces the characters of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Countess Sophie. Doctorow incorporates many other famous figures into the novel, such as Evelyn Nesbit, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman, and Harry Houdini. In weaving them into the narrative, Doctorow retains many of their real-life traits and characterizations, but he adapts them to the novel's setting and often portrays them in unusual or surprising circumstances. In so doing, Doctorow mixes history and fiction, creates a highly entertaining plot, and, perhaps most importantly, challenges the reader to question the nature of historical truth.

In Ragtime, the manner in which various individuals react to change constitutes a main thematic structure. Doctorow seems to provide the most detailed analysis of the reactions to change within the New Rochelle family. Their reactions speak volumes about their positions in society as well as their individual personalities.

Father's reactions to the changed circumstances he finds upon his return from his trip to the Arctic reflect his growing sense of alienation from his family and his town. In the relatively short time of his absence, his family's dynamics and interactions have undergone considerable change. Doctorow writes, "He wandered through the house finding everywhere signs of his own exclusion. His son now had a desk, as befitted all young students. He thought he heard an Arctic wind but it was the sound of the housemaid Brigit pushing an electric suction cleaner across the rug in the parlor. What was the strangest of all was the mirror in his bath: it gave back the gaunt, bearded face of a derelict, a man who lacked a home." Again, Doctorow employs the metaphor of duplication to express individual characterizations. The mirror provides an opportunity for self-reflection that, in this instance, depresses Father. His wife's facility with the duties of the family business in his absence, as well as his son's growing maturity and competence, create in Father the feeling that he is unneeded. Doctorow writes of the little boy, "Father felt childlike beside him."

Mother's transformations manifest themselves most clearly in her increasing awareness of her own sexuality. Doctorow writes, "She was in some way not as vigorously modest as she'd been. She took his gaze. She came to bed with her hair unbraided. Her hand one night brushed down his chest and came to rest below his nightshirt." This highly dramatic passage addresses not only the ways in which Mother and Father have changed in each other's absence, but also the differences on their perspectives on sexuality. Father seems to experience a profound sense of immorality in deriving pleasure from sex, as evident in his fear of God's judgment. In this sense, as well as in many of his other social views, Father represents a traditional male at the turn of the century, incapable of real change, resentful of the altered world around him, which is beyond his control, and rigid in his conceptions of morality. Doctorow writes, "Father related it to the degrees of turn in the moral planet. He saw it everywhere, this new season, and it bewildered him."

The little boy possesses an enormous curiosity about the world around him and consistently expresses engagement in it. Doctorow writes of the stories of Ovid, "They were stories of people who became animals or trees or statues. They were stories of transformation. Women turned into sunflowers, spiders, bats, birds; men turned into snakes, pigs, stones and even thin air." These stories engage the little boy's imagination and in addition "propose[d] to him that the forms of life were volatile and that everything in the world could as easily be something else." In addition, in the course of the novel the boy also undergoes the physical and emotional transition into the beginning stages of manhood. His increasing self-awareness attests to this growth.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us