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Ragtime

E. L. Doctorow

Study Questions and Suggested Essay Topics

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Study Questions

How do the novel's characters react to changes in their environment? What do their reactions say about their social positions, their historical significance as characters, and their individual personalities?

E.L. Doctorow addresses several major societal changes in turn-of-the-century America in his novel Ragtime. He conveys the effects of these changes through the reactions of the characters. Some characters welcome and accept change, while others reject and struggle with it. These differing reactions become a way in which Doctorow develops his characters. For example, Father cannot abide by the changes he faces upon his return from his expedition. Father becomes depressed by his feelings of alienation from his family and from the ways of the new century. He feels helpless in light of the increased self- sufficiency of both his wife and his son. Mother, on the other hand, finds her newfound abilities and freedoms liberating, and thrives in Father's absence. Her duties with the family business and her responsibilities toward Sarah and her child make her realize her potential. At the end of the novel, she has become so separated from the previous societal norms that she marries Tateh at a time when marriage between Christians and Jews had not yet gained acceptance.

How does Doctorow address the role of technology in the lives of individuals? What does he imply are the advantages and disadvantages of science and technology?

The Progressive Era (1900–1917) during which this novel is set was a time marked by rapid technological developments and industrialization. These years also brought a heavy influx of immigrants as well as an increasingly urban American landscape. Technological advancements enabled increased efficiency and mass production. However, Doctorow clearly brings into question the consequences of this new technology for the average American worker. J.P. Morgan's discussion with Henry Ford about Ford's assembly line innovations brings this debate to the forefront. At the end of chapter eighteen, Doctorow writes, "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." Here Doctorow clearly addresses the potential for technology to undermine the value of the individual and his abilities. Morgan also discusses his belief that technology has resulted in a loss of the spiritual self.

The narrative voice in Ragtime often seems ambiguous. What could Doctorow have hoped to convey by this ambiguity? Who could possibly be narrating? What insight do they have into the characters' inner thoughts and feelings?

In Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow employs a unique and intriguing narrative style. The narrator seems to be neither an omniscient and uninvolved individual nor any one specific character. Critics have varying opinions on the origin of the narrative voice; most critics agree that the voice appears to be that of an American writing in 1974. The narrator's sense of historical perspective, as well as his use of ironic and rhetorical commentary, seems to support this notion. The narrator's knowledge about the little boy's thoughts and feelings might lead the reader to believe the little boy narrates the story; however, the narrative voice remains in the third person. In addition, perhaps Tateh's little girl provides the narrative voice. Another possibility lies in the notion that the little girl and the little boy narrate the story together. Tateh, Mameh, and the little girl seem to find their parallel in Father, Mother, and the little boy; perhaps each child provides different elements to the narration and to the story line, to produce a more comprehensive image of America at the turn of the century. The recurrent presence of "we" throughout the novel supports this belief that the two voices narrate together.

Suggested Essay Topics

How does Doctorow incorporate metaphors of imprisonment and false liberation into Ragtime? How does imprisonment manifest itself in the novel's characters, psychologically, economically, and physically?

How do some of the main characters serve allegorical roles? What movements or social trends are they intended to represent?

What questions and concerns does Doctorow raise about the nature of historical truth?

How does the struggle for stability and meaning manifest itself in the characters' thoughts and actions?

What is the role of the motion picture in Ragtime? What is its significance as a cultural influence at the turn of the century in the United States? How is the process of "duplication" significant?

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