In the classic E. L. Doctorow novel, Ragtime, we see the juxtaposition of many motifs to represent Doctorow’s view of the early century. By combining history and fiction Doctorow allows himself to write a semi-accurate interpretation of the early 1900’s while also being able to strongly express his own biases and opinions of the era. The biggest, and perhaps most important theme Doctorow applies in the novel is social tension, or the battle of the rich versus the poor. Other important themes include rebirth, racial tension, and high randomness of events.
By using these themes and others, movie makers created a film, which they believe best represents Doctorow’s views. It is apparent that Doctorow clearly favors the poor, lower class, in their struggle for economic and social mobility against the few, rich, upper class citizens. Doctorow’s thoughts are best depicted through the novel’s characters. Tateh, Coalhouse Walker and Sarah are all characters who are portrayed as ‘good’. These characters, while representing a wide range of economic success, all symbolize socially challenged individuals.
Throughout the novel, Doctorow always chooses these or similar types of characters to be the protagonists. Doctorow wants the reader to feel for Coalhouse’s situation. He wants the reader to hope that Willie Conklin is harmed and the Model T Ford is repaired. On the other hand, Doctorow tells a different tale for the economic elite, upper echelon of society, represented by J. P. Morgan and Henry Ford. Morgan is presented as a snobbish old man, who always gets his way, and we are supposed to feel no remorse for him when his museum is broken int!
We, the readers, are inclined to agree with Doctorow’s opinion only because that is the way he planned it. Doctorow did not touch on any negative aspects of Coalhouse Walker’s actions, such as innocent firemen that he killed, and their families, perhaps, because this might sway the reader’s belief as to Coalhouse’s innocence. The film, Ragtime, does support Doctorow’s social tension beliefs, however it leaves more things open for the reader to decide. For example the book gives the impression that Coalhouse is killing the racist bad firemen. The movie shows him shooting and blowing up firemen, who perhaps could be ‘good’ people.
The concept of rebirth is used liberally by Doctorow. Doctorow commonly has a character go through a major transmogrification, or rebirth. This rebirth ordinarily happens when moving from one social class to another. Tateh, Houdini, Coalhouse, and mother’s younger brother and clearly are examples of these rebirths. When Tateh goes from being a poor street peddler to a rich movie maker, he goes through a transformation. Tateh starts dressing and acting a lot differently, perhaps also forgetting his Jewish heritage and 5000 years of oppression.
Houdini’s alteration is greater than Tateh’s. Houdini goes from a not so well off family to a rich and famous escape artist. Through this social change, Houdini changes his Jewish name Erich Weiss to a more appropriate Christian name of Harry Houdini. As well as changing his name, Houdini also seemed to forget his background. However, later in the novel we find out that Houdini did in fact not forget his heritage. He just changed his name as a career move. Coalhouse Walker’s rebirth is much more dramatic and swift than Tateh’s or Houdini’s.
Coalhouse goes from a fine upstanding citizen to a disgruntled man, caught at the end of a racist prank, and out for revenge. At one point, “He sat down with a sheet over his shoulder and permitted one of the young men to shave his head and his neat mustache. The change in him was striking,” (). This symbolic and actual rebirth occurs as Coalhouse moves from being a wealthy prominent musician to a fugitive on the run. Mother’s younger brother also goes through a rebirth. His rebirth involves going from a wealthy family to a fugitive gang.
Because of this social change, Doctorow has mother’s younger brother go through a rebirth as well. This was in the form of him putting black makeup on his face to fit in with Coalhouse’s black gang. All four of these examples express Doctorow’s opinion that in order to go through a social change, one must go through a physical rebirth of some sort. The movie does complement Doctorow’s view on this issue. The film portrays all four characters as going through physical transformations as well as social changes. Racial tension is certainly a major motif throughout the book.
Without it, the book simply would be neither entertaining nor fulfilling. In writing Ragtime, Doctorow knew that racial tension was the most obvious theme in his book, as well as being the foundation for a major plot in the book. One does not have to dig to deeply in order to discover that Doctorow believes that there was racial tension and blatant racism in the early century. To represent this racial tension, Doctorow uses a mix of fiction and history. On the fictional side, Doctorow has Coalhouse Walker and his fianc? Sarah. On the historical side, Doctorow has Booker T.
Washington, a famous black rights leader who believed in non-violent methods. Doctorow has Coalhouse and Sarah interact with other fictional characters, the Vice President of the United States, Willie Conklin, the other firemen, and others in order to put racial tension in place. Then Doctorow has Coalhouse have a conversation with the famous Booker T. Washington. This interaction shows the extent to which Doctorow believed in the racial tension many years ago. The book shows that Doctorow believed racial tension to be a strong driving force in the actions of the early 1900’s.
The film did justice to the book in that respect. The film accurately portrayed strong racial tension, as well as a beautiful dialogue between Coalhouse and Booker T. Washington. After Washington made a fabulous and convincing speech to Coalhouse, Coalhouse replied, “My wife Sarah would have loved to meet you Mr. Washington. You speak like an angel. However, we are on Earth. ” This dialogue from the movie shows how high strung the racial tension was, because it depicts Coalhouse making a rude comment to the most prominent Civil Rights figure of his time, in order to stand up to a small racist practical done on him.
E. L. Doctorow wrote Ragtime in a very interesting way, in that the fate of characters seems to be based on a high entropy, or randomness. In a usual circumstance, fate, if one believes in such a thing, follows a set up, logical, pattern of events. This, however, is not the case in this novel. Mother and Coalhouse are good examples of this high disorder and randomness. Mother was very satisfied with her marriage to father. She waited when he went on his adventures to the arctic, and she was a faithful wife.
Early in the novel there is no way that anyone could have predicted that mother would leave father and marry Tateh. This new relationship was very random and created a lot of disorder. When we first meet Coalhouse Walker, he is nothing but a gentleman. In fact, he holds a stable job, has a good car, and a steady income. He also has a soon to be family and everything is going great for him. Who would have guessed that one small incident would change Coalhouse into a criminal, a murderer, and running from the law. This example perfectly illustrates the ambiance of high disorder in the book.
It is clear that Doctorow beliefs the early century to be a random and crazy time. Doctorow believes that in the early 1900’s anything could happen. Little on the earth was regulated and many laws were not enforced to the extent they should have been. The movie does a satisfactory job in reliving this randomness. If the movie did not do a satisfactory job, it would not even have been considered based on the book, because these random events of Mother and Coalhouse are fundamental ideas that needed to be included in the film.