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The “Ragtime” Novel by E. L. Doctorow Essay

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Updated: Jun 11th, 2020


Change is inevitable, and it occurs in all spheres of life including the economic, political, and social phenomena. The aspect of change is highlighted through the current trends of activities that show discrepancy with past happenings. Novels among other publications also play a critical role in demonstrating the aspect of change that has taken place after some period. This paper is an argumentative essay based on the 1975 novel, Ragtime, by E. L. Doctorow. Works of literature contain various themes.

These themes range from historical experiences to the day-to-day events. However, novels, movies, and other diverse works of literature that purport to convey historical information are ambiguous. This assertion holds because they lack the authenticity of historical changes and thus invalid and inaccurate. The novel, Ragtime, is an example of works that have a historical setting. The novel is relevant as it gives historical evidence of factual changes in the United States during the period 1902 to 1912 when it was set. The novel, Ragtime, underscores the theme of change through the main characters by being accurate about the history of the period.

The theme of change and connections between the novel and history of the period

The novel’s context is set in the past on issues that occurred in New York City in the period between 1902 and 1912. The novel is associated with the literary genre of historical fiction that aims to focus the plot of the novel on historical settings (Ramin and Mirandi 162). Therefore, the novel demonstrates the behavioral and social conditions of the characters while paying close attention to the past. Ragtime depicts the elements of historical fantasy through its deliberate efforts of inserting historical scenes and elements in its plot. The novel also contains scenes that illustrate happenings that occurred before the commencement the First World War.

The novel has various connections with the American history. Ragtime portrays an aspect of immigration that was dominant in the US during that period. A huge stream of immigrants arrived in the US from a variety of nations including Germany, Britain, Italy, Russia, Canada, among other nations. Most immigrants occupied large cities in the East Coast with an example of Tateh, Mameh, and the little girl as demonstrated in the novel who settled in New York City (Doctorow 6). Other immigrants settled in the Midwest where they were able to secure employment opportunities in the industries, construction, and mining sites. Some immigrants returned to their homes after making savings in the United States. A majority remained in the US with the hope becoming prosperous.

The novel is connected to the American history through the theme of industrialization. During the period when the novel was set, the United States emerged as the most industrialized nation. The continuation of the technological revolution was evidenced by the mass production and electrification of factories. Industrialization in the US was facilitated by the presence of ample natural resources, good transport system, and appropriate climate. Powerful industrialists emerged during this era and made various inventions that eased the delivery of services. The novel connects with history by illustrating to the readers information concerning various industrialist who existed during the time as Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie. The author posits, “There was a strike in Pittsburg at the Homestead steel plant of Mr. Carnegie” (Doctorow 22).

The progressive movement dominates the period in which the novel is set. During this time, the middle class possessed a social duty to the poor. It was the role of the privileged members of the society to cater for the less fortunate especially the African-Americans. According to the remarks of Eleanor Roosevelt who was an American politician, activist, and a diplomat at the time, it was the sole obligation of the society to care for the poor (Wright 16). Ragtime is connected to this scenario. For instance, Mother accommodates Sarah in her house even after discovering that the African-American woman had buried her child alive. “…she [Sarah] had said in all the months she had lived in the house” (Doctorow 57). Mother opts to save Sarah from going to prison after her heinous act and adopts the young child, who could have otherwise perished. Mother is a wealthy upper-class woman while Sarah is very deprived, which illustrates the heartfelt concern for the less privileged.

The novel is also relevant to the American history because it pinpoints the theme of religion at the time. The time when the novel was set is characterized by the third great awakening. There was a renewal of the evangelical Protestantism, which had a strong sense of social activism. This awakening affected the Protestant denominations in the US. The social gospel was gaining popularity as well as the worldwide missionary movements. The novel depicts these views by the theological discussions between J.P Morgan and Henry Ford. Morgan asks Ford, “Do you believe in God… I would not expect any man of your intelligence to embrace such a common idea” (Doctorow 54). Further evidence to show religious activities during the time is demonstrated by Morgan, who travels to Egypt on a mission to restore his spirituality (Wright 15).

Moreover, the novel is set during the period of Nadir of American race relations. During this time in the history of the Southern United States, elements of racism were common. The period was characterized by the loss of the civil rights of the African-Americans resulting in their isolation and discrimination. The aspect of white supremacy propagated racism by upholding the stereotype that the whites had certain characteristics, attributes, and traits that were dominant over the African-Americans. For instance, Evelyn Nesbit is prohibited from visiting the Lower East side that is occupied by the Whites, which underscores instances of isolation and discrimination (Doctorow 19).

Change is an eminent theme in the novel as exhibited by various historical occurrences among the characters themselves and the United States as a whole. The various changes witnessed in the novel are economic, social, political, and personal changes.

Change is depicted in the novel by various characters that endeavor to make innovations in the US during that period. From the novel, Mother’s Younger Brother, who works at Father’s factory and later becomes a professional in bomb construction, underscores historical changes in industrialization. Another form of evidence from the novel that demonstrates industrialization is the meeting between J.P Morgan and Henry Ford to deliberate on issues of technology. Industrial changes during the period are clear because Ford launches the Model T in the year 1908. Mother’s younger Brother and other Coalhouse gangs use a similar model of the car to flee to Mexico after a raid by the firing squad. The presence of factories and the advancement of technology during the time depict historical changes.

Most immigrants arriving in the US during that time moved from their native lands due to reasons related to poverty and religious threats. In the novel, poverty among the immigrants is outstanding. For instance, Mameh becomes a prostitute to earn few dollars to cater for her living expenses. Tateh, an immigrant, gets employment in a textile mill located in Massachusetts. However, positive changes in the lives of the immigrants after their stay in the US stand out in Tateh’s case, as he later relocates to Atlantic City and refashions himself to become a motion picture director. This case illustrates how various immigrants became prosperous the US, which gave them improved living standards.

The novel demonstrates certain aspects of changes in the growth of labor movements. These movements were obligated to promote the social and cultural wellbeing of the workers through the rejection of anarchism and socialism, thus promoting ethical behavior amongst workers. Labor movements were also responsible for various riots and strikes after the management refused to harken to various demands of the workers. From the novel, textile mill workers where Tateh has secured employment underscore the strike issue. The evidence of strikes during that time demonstrates that there was remarkable growth in the labor movement as more people became aware of their negotiation rights. Doctorow notes, “…the funds raised for the occasion would go to support the shirtwaist makers, who were then on strike” (20).

The period in which the novel was set depicts vivid changes in the family life of various characters. During that time, the wealth of most Americans was steadily increasing, and citizens were in a position to afford decent housing, clothing, healthcare, and education. Due to the increase in intellectual lives, marital relationships and sexual fulfillment proceeded to gain significance among the Americans. This scenario resulted in improved family lives as mirrored by the establishment of companionships. In the novel, Evelyn reestablishes a new relationship with Mother’s Younger Brother after her husband is charged with the murder of Stanford White, her ex-lover. Additionally, Coalhouse Walker courts Sarah and later forwards a marriage proposal to her, and Sarah cordially accepts it. From the prospects of these two relationships exhibited in the novel, the readers can see some aspects of the growth of family life as illustrated by the established relationships among the various characters.

The novel highlights efforts by the African-Americans to halt race-based discriminations. Sarah fights for her fiancé by making deliberate plans to meet the Vice President to convince him to petition the federal government on behalf of Coalhouse. “…Sarah conceived the idea of petitioning the United States on his behalf” (Doctorow 70). Therefore, Ragtime highlights efforts to fight racism at the time, which is historically accurate.


Life is characterized by various transitions that touch all spheres whether economic, social, or political. The novel, Ragtime, carries the theme of change as illuminated by almost all the characters. However, some characters choose to remain rigid and uphold their perspectives about life. Some of the ways through which the novel is connected to history includes the presence of economic revolutionists like Henry Ford, who made world-changing inventions during that period. Other connections include immigration and progressive movement. Therefore, it suffices to conclude that the novel, Ragtime, is historically accurate as evidenced by increased industrialization, change in family life, and transformed lives of the immigrants among other aspects.

Works Cited

Doctorow, Edgar. Ragtime, New York: Random House, 1974. Print.

Ramin, Zohreh, and Seyyed Mohammad Marandi. “History/fiction: an intertextual reading of EL Doctorow’s Ragtime.” 3L: The Southeast Asian Journal of English Language Studies 20.1 (2014): 157-166. Print.

Wright, Derek. “Ragtime Revisited: History and Fiction in Doctorow’s Novel.” The International Fiction Review 20.1 (1993): 14-16. Print.

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