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Ragtime

E. L. Doctorow

Part II, Chapters 16–18

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

Part II, Chapters 19–21

Summary

Chapter 16

Tateh observes that his daughter has begun to mature rapidly; he worries about her safety and development. They travel together to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where there is a citywide strike against the textile mills. The organizers of the strike have set up a network of families where the workers can send their children. Tateh struggles over the decision whether or not to send his daughter away; ultimately he decides to do so. However, at the train station, chaos breaks out, due to an order issued by the city marshal barring all children from leaving Lawrence. The girl remains on the train as it pulls out of the station, but Tateh runs to catch up with it and jumps aboard.

Chapter 17

Tateh and the little girl continue their train ride through Boston, New Haven, Westchester county, New York, Newark, and Philadelphia. In Philadelphia Tateh reads of the strike's success, but finds little real hope that conditions would improve for him and his daughter in New York. With that, he concludes they will remain in Lawrence. While still in Philadelphia, Tateh finds a novelty store; there, he presents the owner with his newly made book, a sketchbook with drawings that, when flipped through quickly, set the images in motion. Tateh signs an agreement to produce four additional books such as this one.

Chapter 18

As manufacturing and mass production undergoes considerable growth in the United States, Henry Ford takes a huge step toward efficiency in the automobile industry by inventing the assembly line to completion of the Model T vehicle. Soon there ensues a devaluation of the individual as a result of this innovation.

Analysis

In Chapters Sixteen and Seventeen, Doctorow describes the adventures of Tateh and the little girl as they travel along the Eastern seaboard. An incredibly dynamic character, Tateh here first begins to challenge his old life and seek a better one. He realistically assesses the value of a life such as the one he has had and has shown his daughter, and finds the hardships outweigh the joys. Emotionally, Tateh has begun to see the toll life in New York has taken on him. Doctorow writes of Tateh's thoughts, "This country will not let me breathe." Tateh also experiences a crucial and meaningful feeling of separation from his previous socio-economic position. Doctorow writes, "From this moment, perhaps, Tateh began to conceive of his life as separate from the fate of the working class. I hate machines, he said to his daughter. He stood and she stood and took his hand and together they looked for the exit. The I.W.W. has won, he said. But what has it won? A few more pennies in wages. Will it now own the mills? No." At this point in the novel, Tateh reaches the pinnacle of his disillusionment with the American dream. Although earlier in his life, and in his stay in the United States, he has possessed idealism and a sense of promise, he loses hope as his efforts toward social equality consistently fail to reap substantial rewards. During Tateh's escape from New York, however, Doctorow writes, "he begins to conceive of a better life for himself." By the end of the chapter, in fact, he demonstrates his entrepreneurial abilities through the sale of the movie books he has designed and exhibits a more profound understanding of how to succeed in a capitalist system.

The above passage also touches upon another major theme of the novel, the effect of technology on individual lives. Innovative technology of the turn of the century facilitated many tasks that had previously been painstaking and time- consuming, as well as enabling a far greater efficiency in manufacturing. However, the individual laborer lost much of his value, both in his own mind and in that of his employer. As Doctorow writes at the end of chapter eighteen, "From these principles Ford established the final proposition of the theory of industrial manufacture—not only that the parts of the finished product be interchangeable, but that the men who build the products be themselves interchangeable parts." As in several other instances in the novel, Doctorow here employs the metaphor of imprisonment to describe an emotional and psychological state. As Tateh leaps onto the train that has begun to carry his daughter away from him, Doctorow writes, "He clung to the railing, finally hoisting his knees to the platform overhang and clinging there with his head pressed against the bars like a man in prison begging to be set free." Before he leaves New York City, Tateh's position as a recent Jewish immigrant to the Lower East Side in fact resembles a prison in many ways. The conditions under which he and his daughter live constitute a veritable helplessness, economically and, as a result, physically and emotionally.

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