Humans strive for stability, so when faced with change, stability’s greatest threat, people shy away. Nevertheless, in order to succeed in a world where technology and beliefs are constantly evolving, one must be willing to change themselves. Published in 1975, E.L. Doctorow’s historical novel Ragtime traverses the line between history and fantasy, investigating the lives of many diverse characters: some who embrace change and others who do not. Tateh, a Jewish immigrant working to support his daughter, exchanges his life of destitution for one of prosperity by contributing to the rapidly expanding film industry. Mother, an upper class housewife in an era lacking many women’s rights, learns to manage her family and their company, while her husband, Father, a white middle class firework manufacturer, is on an expedition in the Arctic. Father, unlike Mother and Tateh, refuses to acknowledge that his family no longer needs his support in the way they once did and consequently loses all sense of purpose. Through the development of characters Tateh and Mother, whose adaptation to their changing situations leads to their success, and Father, whose failure to adapt leads to his downfall, E.L. Doctorow exposes the truth that one must either welcome change as it is presented or be abandoned by society.
Tateh’s transformation from a street peddler working in the slums of New York to a wealthy movie producer transpires because of his willingness to adjust throughout life. Tateh moves to Massachusetts to escape his horrid existence, but when his fellow mill workers go on strike and violence prevails, he flees the town, unintentionally landing in Philadelphia. After learning that the strikers won, he declares, “The I.W.W. has won. But what has it won? A few more pennies in wages”(131). Dissatisfied with this victory, Tateh “decides to leave his belongings to the landlord in Massachusetts”(131) and stay where his life has led him. Although this means he must begin his life anew, he chooses to reshape his life rather than return to a place that while familiar, will restrict his growth. Along with rejecting the labor movement, Tateh abandons his radical, socialist beliefs. Despite society’s opposition towards these beliefs, Tateh had such confidence in the ideology that he served as president of the Socialist Artists’ Alliance. The change is his political ideology serves to demonstrate the extent to which he will travel to succeed in American society (King). Tateh’s willingness to desert a cause he once championed demonstrates the importance of making significant changes not just to one’s life, but to one’s identity as well.
Rather than merely look for a means to survive, Tateh strives to benefit from each new situation he encounters. After arriving in Philadelphia, Tateh sells the picture book he designed for his daughter to a novelty company he stumbles upon, earning himself “a boarding house in a good neighborhood a meal and a hot bath,”(133) moments after arriving penniless in this new state. Tateh designed his picture books for the pleasure of his daughter, but his encounter with the novelty company changes his perception of how his art can earn him a living. The picture book far far better than the silhouettes he used to make; nevertheless, he does not stop at these books. As literary critic Michelle Tokarczyk remarks, “Tateh transforms his future by manipulating them” into motion pictures. Innovation runs rampid in the era the novel takes place in, so Tateh continues to change his product as the technology of the time evolves until he has made himself a huge fortune. When reflecting on his success, Tateh reveals that “his new existence thrilled him… He felt he deserved his happiness. He’d constructed it without help” (258). With each change Tateh faces, he assesses his situation so that he not only acclimates to the change but benefits from it, demonstrating that change, if viewed positively, can reward its adversary.
Mother’s ability to adapt in the absence of her husband and assume a role soley recognized as that of a man’s during the early twentieth century grants her a happiness she had not realized she lacked. While Father explores the Arctic, Mother takes over as head of the firework company and succeeds with such ease that all of the business’s “mysterious potency was dissipated and she saw it for the dreary unimaginative thing it was”(250). Mother once depended on her husband, but her triumph causes her to realize that her marriage has prohibited her growth; in fact, when Mother encounters Sarah, a young black girl whose failed attempt to abandon her daughter lands her in trouble with the police, Mother makes the executive decision to take responsibility of the girl. She stands by her decision “despite the best advice of the doctor and the remonstrations of the police”(71). The doctor and the policeman are two key symbols of white male authority, so by disregarding their advice, Mother acknowledges that her wisdom matches, if not overpowers, theirs, a notion she never would have considered before her husband voyaged to the Arctic (Ferrández San Miguel). Mother’s evolution into a woman who recognizes her own self worth allows her to discern what she wants in her life, rather than living to please others.
Presented with a change in the structure of power within her family after Father’s return, Mother continues to expand her role, taking her well-being into her own hands instead of returning to her part as the quiet, hopeful housewife. Whereas before Father’s voyage, Mother viewed sex as a distasteful, but necessary duty to her husband, after his return 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” (111). Faced with Father’s absence, Mother realizes that she had been living in a state of subservience and decides to change her standing in her relationship (Ferrández San Miguel). By changing her outlook on sex, Mother claims her sexuality and starts on the path to discovering what she wants for herself in life, which includes no longer waiting for her family “to discover a life of genius”(249). Instead, she decides to take her future into her own hands, making changes that increase her happiness. A few years after Father returns, he dies. However, Mother quickly adapts to the circumstances, marrying Tateh, whom she truly “loved to be with”(319). Mother’s ability to evolve as her circumstances change allows her to achieve a new sense of self and a feeling of happiness.
Although Father realizes that his absence caused his role within his family to change, he disregards this knowledge and continues acting as the man his family no longer needs, causing him to feel alienated. Once the respected leader of his family, Father returns an outsider, treated “like a convalescent”(111) by his wife and his now competent son, whom after his return, Father “felt childlike beside”(113). Father sees that his family no longer depends on him, but rather than feel proud, he fears that he has lost his place.
When Mother takes the initiative to change the decor in the dining room, “Father, sensitive to every change, found his appetite diminished”(154). His susceptibility to change harms him in every avenue of his life and limits his development, resulting in his death shortly after being deserted by his family and friends.
In order for people to reach their full potential, they must acknowledge changes they need to make within themselves. However, many people would rather remain ignorant than face the difficulties of changing their persona. With the technological advancements of the twenty first century it has become even easier for people to ignore their faults and need to change. Hiding behind a screen allows people to adopt whatever persona pleases them, but this resource should act as a model for who people could become if they changed, not an escape from who they are. Doctorow’s intent remains relevant despite the era; people must welcome change to remain satisfied with their role in life.
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