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.