Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes.

The Nature of Historical Truth

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.

The Motion Picture and Photography

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.

The Ambiguity of the Narrative Voice

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.