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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Ragtime!