Ragtime Novel

Named one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century by the Modern Library, Ragtime (1975) by American novelist E. L. Doctorow (1931-2015) is a novel about oppression, social change, and the search for stability in a rapidly evolving world. Ragtime features three families from vastly different backgrounds whose lives are inextricably woven together as they navigate the changing world at the turn of the 20th century. 

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Table of contents

    Ragtime Summary

    Ragtime begins in New York at the turn of the 20th century. An upper-class family consisting of Father, Mother, Mother's Younger Brother, Grandfather, and the little boy own a company producing flags and fireworks. Mother's Younger Brother is obsessed with the actress Evelyn Nesbit, Father leaves on a trip to explore the Arctic with real-life explorer Robert Peary, and Mother finds a new sense of freedom and leadership as she takes over as the head of household in Father's absence.

    Evelyn becomes quite fond of the daughter of an immigrant family, who she meets while visiting the Lower East Side. The little girl's parents have recently split because her mother (Mameh) had sex with her employer to make ends meet, so the girl's father (Tateh) is raising her alone. When the girl gets sick, Evelyn takes care of her. Meanwhile, Mother's Younger Brother stalks Evelyn and the two start dating. Tateh and the little girl leave New York, traveling along the East Coast. In Philadelphia, Tateh sells a movie idea to a novelty company and becomes a movie director.

    "Tateh" means daddy and "Mameh" means mommy in Yiddish.

    Back in New York, Evelyn and Mother's Younger Brother break up. Mother finds an abandoned Black baby in her backyard and takes the boy in instead of reporting the incident to the authorities. Mother opens her home to the boy's mother, Sarah, as well. The baby's father, a Black musician named Coalhouse Walker, visits Sarah at Father and Mother's house often and insistently asks her to marry him. Although Sarah initially refuses to see him, Coalhouse eventually woos her and earns the family's respect by playing ragtime music on the piano. Eventually, she agrees. Father comes back from his expedition, and he and Mother begin to resent one another. Father is uncomfortable with Coalhouse in his home, and Mother feels stifled by her husband's return.

    Ragtime Novel, Mother holding baby, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Mother unofficially adopts Sarah's baby and raises him.

    One day as Coalhouse is driving to New York, a racist group of firemen block his path and wreck his Model-T Ford. Coalhouse first pursues legal action but cannot find a lawyer who will represent him. He refuses to marry Sarah until his car is fixed, so Sarah decides to petition the Vice President, who is in town. The guards protecting the Vice President think she is an assassin, so they hit her in the chest with a gun. She dies from subsequent complications. Mother and Father flee to Atlantic City with the little boy to avoid the fallout. They meet Tateh and his daughter there, and the little boy and little girl become close.

    Intent on revenge, Coalhouse amasses a following (including Mother's Younger Brother) and bombs the firehouse, killing firemen in the process. He and his followers decide to break into J.P. Morgan's library and hold the contents for ransom until Coalhouse's truck is returned and the fire crew leader is turned over to him. Booker T. Washington and Father help Coalhouse negotiate new terms, but as Coalhouse surrenders to the authorities, he is shot and killed.

    Ragtime Novel, Firemen in front of a fire, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Coalhouse seeks revenge on the racist fire department after they destroy his car.

    Mother's Younger Brother flees to Mexico where he eventually dies, Father dies in the sinking of the U.S.S. Lusitania, and Mother and Tateh marry and raise the children in California.

    Ragtime Characters

    Ragtime centers around the intersecting lives of three families: a white family consisting of Father, Mother, Mother's Younger Brother, Grandfather, and the little boy; a black family consisting of Sarah, Sarah's son, and Coalhouse Walker; and a Jewish immigrant family consisting of Mameh, Tateh, and the little girl.


    Father is the patriarch of his upper-class family living in New York. He had to carve out a spot for himself in the business world and made his family wealthy by selling symbols of patriotism like fireworks and flags. Father is absent for a section of the novel as he is away exploring the Arctic. When he returns, he feels alienated from his family and is uncomfortable that a Black family is essentially living in his home.

    Ragtime Novel, Flag and sparkler, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Father provides for his family by producing patriotic objects like fireworks and flags.


    Father's wife, Mother takes control of the household and business in his absence. Mother decides to care for the abandoned Black baby and his mother. She also loses some of her adoration for her husband when she realizes how easy the business is to run. When Father returns, she realizes that she does not feel romantic love for him. Throughout the novel, she redefines her understanding of sexuality and finds freedom in embracing her sexual nature. After Father's death, she remarries Tateh.

    Mother's Younger Brother

    Mother's Younger Brother is idealistic, impulsive, and impressionable. He stalks Evelyn, who he believes himself in love with, until she notices him and agrees to a date. After they break up, he throws himself into any cause that brings him meaning, first fighting with Coalhouse against the fire department and later moving to Mexico to join revolutionaries.

    The Little Boy

    Mother and Father's son, the little boy narrates much of the novel. He is young and enjoys learning about the world around him. He forms a deep friendship with Tateh's daughter.


    The mother of Coalhouse's child, Sarah is a depressed and poor washerwoman in the neighborhood. She is cared for by Mother and agrees to Coalhouse's marriage proposal. Sarah dies advocating for Coalhouse's cause.

    Sarah's Son

    The abandoned son of Sarah and Coalhouse, this unnamed Black child is raised by Mother (and eventually also Tateh) after his parents' deaths.

    Coalhouse Walker

    A passionate Black musician, Coalhouse Walker is persistent and even violent when it comes to getting what he wants. Coalhouse first pursues Sarah, the mother of his child, visiting her until she finally agrees to marry him. He then gets in a feud with the fire department, eventually killing firemen and threatening to destroy priceless artifacts after the destruction of his car. Coalhouse is murdered by authorities after he has surrendered.

    Coalhouse was named after Heinrich von Kleist's 1811 novella Michael Kohlhaas.


    Tateh's wife and the mother of the little girl, Mameh sleeps with her employer for money. In response, Tateh leaves her and takes their child.


    Jewish immigrant and father to the little girl, Tateh is extremely poor at the novel's start but eventually becomes a movie director. He raises his daughter as a single father for most of the novel until he marries Mother and their families become one.

    Doctorow's ancestors were also Jewish immigrants.

    The Little Girl

    Tateh and Mameh's daughter, Sha is more commonly referred to as the little girl throughout the novel. She becomes close with the little boy.

    Ragtime Quotes

    Below are some important quotes from Ragtime, speaking to themes of femininity, race, and injustice.

    'The truth is,' Goldman went on quickly, 'women may not vote, they may not love whom they want, they may not develop their minds and their spirits, they may not commit their lives to the spiritual adventure of life, comrades, they may not. And why? Is our genius only in our wombs?'" (Chapter 8)

    Emma Goldman was a real historical figure, well known as a political activist and anarchist in the early 20th century. Goldman challenges Doctorow's characters' beliefs throughout the novel, most notably helping Evelyn see that her husband was abusive. In this quotation, she is speaking about how women are oppressed in society. Unlike men, they cannot vote, choose their husbands, or even think for themselves. The only thing their patriarchal society believed they were suitable for was having babies.

    Evelyn Nesbit was an early celebrity and sex symbol in the movie industry. She is best known for her abusive love triangle with architect Stanford White and her millionaire husband Harry Kendall Thaw. Both men were abusive to Nesbit, and Thaw ultimately shot and killed White in 1906.

    It occurred to Father one day that Coalhouse Walker Jr. didn't know he was a Negro. The more he thought about this the more true it seemed. Walker didn't act or talk like a colored man. He seemed to be able to transform the customary deferences practiced by his race so that they reflected to his own dignity rather than the recipient's." (Chapter 21)

    This quote speaks to the theme of racism in the novel. Coalhouse does not behave how society has decided that Black people should act, causing many problems for him. Coalhouse believes himself worthy of respect and dignity and refuses to be cowed by what the white supremacists believe. This revelation shocks Father and reveals the racist assumptions that even Father and Mother have about their Black guests.

    In the bright floodlit street the black man was said by the police to have made a dash for freedom. More probably he knew that all he must do in order to end his life was to turn his head abruptly or lower his hands or smile. (Chapter 40)

    This quote reveals how the police attempted to justify Coalhouse's death and speaks to injustice within the system. Although Coalhouse willingly surrenders, the police shoot him anyway. It is easier to kill Coalhouse and blame him than it is to let him live as an example of a Black man who could outmaneuver white authorities. Coalhouse realizes that he is going to die, and he accepts his fate because he knows a person like him will not be able to survive in his racist society.

    Ragtime Themes

    Ragtime is a complex novel that examines a variety of social issues in the early 20th century. Two of the most apparent themes in the book are social injustice and the oppression of women.

    Social Injustice

    Throughout the novel, the wealthy and powerful profit off of the socially disadvantaged without any regard for their safety. The novel is full of social injustice for workers, Black people, and even children. Wealthy, white capitalists don't care what happens to their workers as long as they continue to make money. Social injustice even becomes a payment for power and wealth:

    One Hundred N****es a year were lynched. One hundred miners were burned alive. One hundred children were mutilated. There seemed to be quotas for these things. There seemed to be quotas for death by starvation" (Chapter 6)

    The death of their workers is a price the businessmen are willing to pay as long as they continue to line their pockets.

    Ragtime Novel, Laughing man in front of money, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Wealthy business owners' greed and racism cause much of the social justice issues in the novel.

    Social injustice is also clear in the way Coalhouse's case was treated from the beginning to the end. First, his car is destroyed out of prejudice because he is Black. Then, he is unable to build a legal case because no one will represent him, again based on his skin color. Sarah's life has less meaning because she is a Black woman, so the guard hits her as hard as he can in her chest instead of safely stopping her. And even when Coalhouse surrenders, he is still viewed as a threat to white society, so he is put down. Social injustice is rampant in the novel, and the only way to be free of the injustice is not by skill or merit, but by connections.

    Oppression of Women

    Most of the abuse against women in the novel is through social oppression instead of physical abuse. Before her husband left, Mother thought that a good woman raised her children, had sex to procreate, and took care of her household. It isn't until Father left that Mother was given a chance to run the family company and enter into the male-dominated business world. While Father is gone, Mother realizes just how trapped she has become in her marriage. She also redefines her understanding of sexuality in his emotional and physical absence, realizing it is not something to be ashamed of, but rather a part of herself that can bring her pleasure, connection, and happiness.

    Ragtime Analysis

    Like many of Doctorow's novels, Ragtime combines both historical figures and fictional characters to create a unique narrative situated in a specific time in history. While famous historical figures such as Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, Henry Ford, and Sigmund Freud are all named, the main characters in the novel are referred to by their roles in society and in their households (Mother, Father, the little girl, etc.).

    The historical figure most central to the plot of Ragtime is supermodel and actress Evelyn Nesbit. At the beginning of the novel, Nesbit is awaiting the results of her husband's murder trial. She has already found acclaim in the modeling world by embracing her good looks and traditional beauty standards, and she anticipates the trial will make her even wealthier.

    But Nesbit changes over the course of the novel, going from a superficial beauty icon to a generous, self-aware benefactor. When she receives relatively little money from the trial, Nesbit moves on with her life and becomes involved in socialist causes. She donates her fortune and reinvents herself, no longer happy in her superficial life as a pretty face and rich man's wife. The way Nesbit is treated throughout the novel—valued more for her beauty than her contributions to society—reinforces the social oppression women, including wealthy women, face.

    Other characters like J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, and Harry Houdini depict the rapidly evolving times while also examining mortality through the eyes of celebrities. Morgan and Ford meet for lunch to talk about work (Ford revolutionized the world of cars and Morgan dominated Wall Street). But their conversation becomes fixated on death. Regardless of how wealthy and famous they are, they cannot escape certain death. Houdini also reflects on death, especially that of his mother. He goes to seances to try and speak with her but is ultimately unsuccessful.

    Although the structure of society benefits these famous, wealthy, white men, there is no social advantage in death. Like Houdini's mother, Morgan and Ford will be trapped and unable to communicate or use their wealth in death.

    Ragtime Novel, Henry Ford, StudySmarterFig. 5 - Doctorow names real historical figures, like Henry Ford, in his novel to show some of the people that changed American society (for better or worse) in the early 20th century.

    Although the three families are the focus of this story, they themselves are not making history. Instead, they are deeply impacted by the changing world around them in terms of political and social change. The only character that is given a full name is Coalhouse Walker, Jr, who is perhaps more important than all of the other characters because he directly symbolizes changing society as an outspoken Black man who does not submit to white authority figures or rely on a white man for his success. His struggle for justice over the simple restoration of his car and his eventual death showcases the ferocity with which traditional (i.e., racist, patriarchal, and Marxist) America fought back against the changing world of the 20th century.

    It is also worth noting that the title Ragtime refers to the music that Coalhouse is known for playing. Ragtime is slow and smooth, like life was in the "old days." It originated in the African American community and eventually gave way to fast-paced, revolutionary jazz music. In much the same way, American culture went from changing relatively slowly to changing rapidly with industrialization and social change in the 1900s.

    Ragtime Novel - Key takeaways

    • Ragtime was written by E. L. Doctorow and published in 1975.
    • The novel is set at the turn of the 20th century in New York City. It centers around three families: a wealthy white family, a Black family, and a Jewish immigrant family.
    • The story's main action centers around Black musician Walker Coalhouse seeking justice for the racist destruction of his car and his ultimate death at the hands of white authorities.
    • The main themes are social injustice and the oppression of women.
    • The novel contains a blend of historical figures and fictional characters to situate the story in the rapidly changing world of the early 20th century.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Ragtime Novel

    When does Ragtime take place?

    Ragtime takes place in the early 20th century (1902-1912) 

    What is the theme of Ragtime?

    The main themes are social injustice and oppression of women 

    When did EL Doctorow write Ragtime?

    Doctorow published Ragtime in 1975. 

    Who are the main characters in Ragtime?

    The main characters are Coalhouse Walker, Mother, Father, and Tateh. 

    What does Houdini symbolize in Ragtime?

    Houdini is symbolical of the changing world of the 20th century and the effect advanced technology had on American culture and entertainment. 

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