Novel Ragtime by E L Doctorow Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

individuals have struggle accepting change. It takes quite some time for one to adapt to this. For regions of a country or even whole nations, change may take decades or possibly centuries.

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow can certainly relate to this Born in 1931, Doctorow (aptly named after EL Poe) has lived through tumultuous changes and grew to see America converging from one of exclusive races and racism into one that styled itself the 'melting pot' where all races converged into an ideal America and, then, in turn, separated itself into distinctive races where Affirmative Action became the ruling policy of the day. No stranger to cultural changes (Baker, 11), Doctorow describes the impact of these changes in his book 'Ragtime' published in 1975. Ragtime (an irreverent tale of change and racism including various famous people in absurd situations) became one of the 100 best novels in American literature. (Harter, & Thompson, 11-15.)

Doctorow's novel "Ragtime" is a story about three families living during the earlier part of the twentieth century with the first family consisting of a father and a mother and their little boy. The storyline shifts to references to a real-life story of Evelyn Nesbit whose husband shot his lover. Throughout this second story, Doctorow introduces the rest of the characters using names similar to real people in history. Several different stories happen within this one narrative, which ends in the assassination of an archduke and the families being united.

In his novel "Ragtime," the author examines the culture clash at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the old, implanted culture found itself exposed to new ideas.

Idea 1: Doctorow uses various techniques to illustrate the momentous change that was sweeping the New World. Some of this is through symbolism, description of behavior, and names.

Symbolism is used where the novel shows the conflict of Father, aptly manufacturer of "accoutrements of patriotism" such as flags and fireworks, is unable to deal with the changes of America of the early 20 thcentury. His wife is more flexible to change than he -- she is the one who befriends the abandoned black child and his family and who ultimately marries the Jewish man (Tatteh), but Father suffers under the harangue of change and is unable to deal with it (Harpham, 36)

The feature of change is brought to life by radicalized description of behavior. Father is disturbed by Mother's behavior:

She was in some way not as vigorously modest as she'd been. She took his gaze. She came to bed with her hair unbraided. Her hand one night brushed down his chest and same to rest below his nightshirt. He decided that God had punishments in store so devious there was no sense trying to anticipate what they were. With a groan he turned to her and found her ready. Her hand pulling his face to hers did not feel his tears (Doctorow, 72-72).

Father becomes disenfranchised and alienated from his family due to his inability to accept the change. Mother on the other hand, thrives in his absence and revels in her new freedom. Her new-found occupation with work and responsibilities towards Sarah and her child expand her and she becomes the super-progressive woman at the end of the novel when she marries a Jew during a time when such intermarriage was still relatively uncommon.

The clash between old and new is also dramatically brought out by Father leaving his house on a ship appropriately called 'The Roosevelt' -- this is another signifier where name is used. Symbolisms of the future are heralded by the shipload of immigrants who were seeking the Land of Opportunity: "Thousands of male heads in derbies. Thousands of female heads covered with shawls. It was a rag ship with a million dark eyes staring at him. Father, a normally resolute person, suddenly foundered in his soul. A weird despair seized him." (Doctorow, 39).

The author implies that this subconsciously carries despair at the future. The silhouettes may well be another. Their symbolism is implied by their changing form.

Idea 2. Juxtaposition of dramatic difference between past and future is a technique that is frequently used to convey the great changes that have occurred (Parks, 108) one such example is conveyed in the early pages of the novel where EL Doctorow cleverly conveys the sense of the changing population where he writes that:

"Women were stouter then. They visited the fleet carrying white parasols. Everyone wore white in summer. Tennis racquets were hefty and the racquet faces elliptical. There was a lot of sexual fainting. There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants."(Doctorow, 72-72).

Soon after, Stanford White was murdered and:

"Evelyn fainted. She had been a well-known artist's model at the age of fifteen. Her underclothes were white. Her husband habitually whipped her. She happened once to meet Emma Goldman, the revolutionary. Goldman lashed her with her tongue. Apparently there were Negroes. There were immigrants." (ibid.)

The family and way of life is irrevocably changing and this mood of changing population is one that both Father and the reader of the novel is being made to feel.

Clash between old and new is also dramatized in black and white strokes by Father arriving home from his trip (and just after he has derided the primitiveness of the Eskimos) finding Mother holding a Black boy and by his son demonstrating to him a bomb that he has just constructed. There could be few less sharp altercations to bring home to Father the disparate changes that he is going through. The author shows them through his altercation of extreme old with extreme new.

This same clash is made by Father taking Son to a ballgame. Nostalgic reflections juxtapose the old civility of the game with the new changes of immigrants imposing their own changes on the game. The same technique of old juxtaposed with new is used

Idea 3:

The author uses philosophical concepts to signify and read into the change. It is appropriate that the book is marked by Freud's visit to the New World and by Freud's subsequent revulsion.

Freud who wrote about Oedipal love -- the devoted obsessive love that son feels for mother is unable to come to grips with the facts that America is in the throes of turning away from its European rots and throwing its headfirst into a new century. He thinks that America is a "gigantic mistake."

Ironically, the very things that Freud detested most of all -- the changes that he saw occurring in America would be ushered in partially through his ideas. The rebellious 60s and 70s -- even before then the giddy 20s -- was in large part due to his profoundly revolutionary sexual conceptions.

Doctorow too uses the concept of prejudice too to illustrate the contrast between old and new. The first glimmerings of change are encountered by Father on his trip to the North Pole. He sees another culture, the Eskimos and he and the Captain are bemused by their so-called primitiveness and childish freedom.

This racism will come up again later with the police officer's encounter with In both places note too that an ironic tone is used as indication of the irrationality of prejudice.

Another concept is that of conformism where Doctorow has Father concur with Peary as 'consensuses. People have to concur with the sociological fashions of the time and Doctorow treats this with irony. Many of these acts of conformism are irrational and Doctorow uses the techniques of irony to make this clear.

IV. Idea #4: Doctorow uses stylistic techniques to signify change of old with new. For instance, the names of the wealthy family remain unknown merely being mentioned as Mother, Mother's Younger Brother, and Father (Levine, 57). This may be because Doctorow is implying that they undergo change or that, at base, they are simply born into circumstances that lift them into a certain class, therefore, provide them with certain behavior, but that ta base their person is the same as others born into poorer classes and that circumstances can easily change them from one position into another.

We see this with Emma undressing Evelyn they are both naked women; only their accidental circumstances happen to make them different. Later, poor Tatteh who only 32 happens to looks far older when Evelyn first sees him, gets transformed into the wealthy Hollywood man through mere chance and zooms into Father's influential sphere marrying his wife.

Emma Goldstein, by undressing the socialite Evelyn, is tangibly analogizing the process of urging her to remove her uncomfortable and restrictive clothing. There is great symbolism in this in that the restriction of the old (symbolized by the corset) will all be replaced by a naturalism and unpretentious atmosphere). Tellingly enough, at this state Younger BORTHER too bursts forth naked.

This technique of Doctorow reducing externals to their commonality and showing that they are all the same is something that Doctorow used often in this book. There is a historicity…

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