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 other reject and struggle with it. These differing reactions become one of the ways 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.
Throughout the novel, the characters attempt to derive meaning from their experiences and from the way in which the world challenges and changes them. Doctorow focuses on the process by which the characters attempt to reconcile their own desires for stability with their knowledge that life's events often seem to possess no reason or direction. For example, in Chapter 20, J.P. Morgan asks Ford, "Suppose I could prove to you that here are universal patterns of order and repetition that give meaning to the activity of this planet." Their discussion about reincarnation also reflects this desire to seek more outside the realm of what is known and to give meaning to life. Morgan's musings, as well as his journey to the Egyptian pyramids, demonstrate his search for truth and meaning. Doctorow also briefly alludes to Theodore Dreiser, whom he portrays as constantly shifting the position of his chair to align himself correctly, yet never quite attaining satisfaction. Peary's expedition to the North Pole, and the subsequent inability to pinpoint the precise location of the North Pole express this effort to find peace amongst chaos.
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.
Doctorow incorporates the tension between imprisonment and liberation into the struggles of several of his characters. Imprisonment manifests itself in many different ways in the novel: physical, emotional, philosophical, political, and economic. For example, Harry Houdini, a famous escape artist, astounds crowds with his ability to escape from any given enclosed area; therefore, his struggle does not originate in physical imprisonment, but in emotional imprisonment. Publicly, he demonstrates his freedom from imprisonment. However, he does not derive any sense of satisfaction from his feats, because privately, his obsession with his mother, which continues even after her death, prevents him from emotional liberation. Tateh also experiences a feeling of imprisonment during his time in New York, and attempts to "escape" to Lawrence, Massachusetts, Philadelphia, and other locations.
In Ragtime, Doctorow often makes allusions to familiar historical figures and events. However, he often alters certain details or entirely fabricates circumstances. In this way, the novel adopts an element of fantasy as well as addressing the subjectivity of historical accounts. Doctorow rejects one-sided absolutes in favor of a more complex view of history enriched by a multiplicity of voices. To this end, Doctorow's many interconnected characters and events draw attention to individuals' various reactions to similar events and circumstances. Through this method of characterization, the reader gains more profound insight into both the character himself and the broader social trends implicit in the character's reactions.
Imagery plays an important role in this novel. The motion picture, an innovation of the Progressive Era, gains prominence during this time, with the threat it presented to traditional art and culture, and the relatively inexpensive cost of attending a film. Tateh achieves relative well-being through his involvement in the production of movies. In addition, Doctorow's interest in imagery manifests itself stylistically in his writing. The novel also expresses an interest in the increased use of duplication as a result of technological advancements, and the consequent loss of a sense of individuation.
In Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow employs a unique 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.
Symbols appear throughout Ragtime; however, they appear more often as allegorical figures than as objects. For example, the character of Coalhouse Walker, the black musician and the lover of Sarah, has incredible import to the main themes of the novel. His characterization provides insight into race relations in turn-of-the-century America. Many characters react strongly to his mannerisms, as they believe his social position does not warrant such behavior. Coalhouse Walker, then, represents all African Americans who challenge the expectations many whites have of them. Father, shocked by this reversal of roles, has a negative impression of Coalhouse from the beginning of his interactions with him; as the situation worsens, Father becomes increasingly agitated with him. However, his character ultimately becomes the quintessential angry black male as he resorts to violence to resolve his feelings toward society.
Father's character also plays an allegorical role in the novel; his, however, differs significantly from that of Coalhouse Walker. Father represents the traditional norms of late nineteenth century America. As such, he finds it difficult to come to terms with the changes he witnesses in the Progressive Era. His feelings of isolation and bewilderment reflect an attitude prevalent among many Americans at this point in history. The reader can often sense that he almost resents these changes in his family as well; such widespread resentment provided the impetus for much of the anti-immigration fervor in the United States.
Evelyn Nesbit, as portrayed in Ragtime, represents the rise of the sexualized female in turn-of-the-century America; Doctorow even explicitly labels her the first sex goddess. As Emma Goldman points out during her anarchist meeting, Evelyn Nesbit uses her body and her sexuality to gain prominence in the capitalist system. She also epitomizes a certain naiveté about poverty, typical of the upper class, especially on her first visit to the Lower East Side.