Ragtime Summary Arakin
The Ragtime Community Note includes chapter-by-chapter summary and analysis, character list, theme list, historical context, author biography and quizzes written by community members like you. Complete summary of E. Doctorow's Ragtime. ENotes plot summaries cover all the significant action of Ragtime.
These notes were contributed by members of the GradeSaver community. We are thankful of their contributions and encourage you to make your own. Written by Timothy Sexton As more than one critic has noted, E.L. Doctorow is a synthesist. He takes a thesis, introduces an antithesis and uses his characters to work out a synthesis. As more than one critic who never uses the word synthesist has noted, Doctorow is not a novelist capable of creating deeply complex characters.
That is hardly to say that he can’t create memorable ones:, Dutch Schultz in Billy Bathgate and Paul Isaacson in all easily put that idea to bed. And yet it would be a mistake to say that they are profoundly complex individuals. Paul Isaacson exists to serve Doctorow’s purpose in re-litigating the Rosenberg spy case. Dutch Schultz is likewise the key to Doctorow’s setting pitting his thesis that underworld criminal activity is not so very antithetical to government sanctioned ethics and values.
Tateh cannot in any way be considered the central figure of Ragtime; he just happens to be the most fascinating to many though clearly some would argue in favor of. What is most interesting about Walker and Tateh is that they are the only two really and truly important characters in Ragtime who are neither historical persons or saddled with descriptions rather than actual names. Harry Houdini is an escape artist and magician, but is the father of the clan at the center.
Younger Brother falls in love with Evelyn Nesbit. Is radicalized by Emma Goldman but eventually marries Tateh who has adopted a fake name to lend himself European aristocratic gravity. Even Coalhouse Walker doesn’t really have a name; he is referred to by Coalhouse. That names apart from the myriad parade of real life historical figures who populate Ragtime have very little meaning as far as constructing identity or—antithetically—limiting identity is essential for Doctorow and perhaps goes a long way toward explaining why most people would have a hard time calling to mind any character from any Doctorow book who was not based on a real life figure. Make no mistake: Doctorow could have written an entire novel just about Tateh and his rise to fame in the burgeoning world of a brand new industry called cinema.
Instead, he chooses to make Tateh just another figure in his vast panorama. The madness has a methodology. Many fascinating incidents take place in Ragtime—more than a few based on actual historical fact. Evelyn Nesbit’s husband actually did gun down her lover inside a posh restaurant. It remains one of the most notorious events of the Gilded Age and has provided material for books and movies on its own. In Ragtime, however, it is just another brick in the wall that Doctorow is building about the entire panorama of that era.
Characters come and go and often in ways that require a great deal of suspension of disbelief. But as improbable as the idea that an average, ordinary upper-middle class family would actually come into contact—one way or another and often by extension—with Houdini, Nesbit, J.P.
Morgan (yes, the same one whose name is on the bank), Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington and even Mexican revolutionary Emiliano “Viva” Zapata may be, the story that Doctorow tells never even approaches the realm of fantasy. Doctorow sets out a thesis about life at the turn of the century and throws it up against an antithesis in the form of what most people think they know about that period. What those theses are is best left up to each individual reader of Ragtime, but only the most inattentive reader could possibly reach the end of this whirlwind tour of a truly fascinating and evolutionary period in American history without reaching their own synthesized perspective of what it all really meant for us a century later in a new millennium that bears an often startling similarity the world Doctorow recreates. Update this section!