E. L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime is a story involving certain characters, each trying to find his or her place in America. Doctorow focus’s on many themes throughout the novel, however, one theme that he gives to the reader from the very beginning of the novel is the American dream. Many characters throughout the novel individually take diverse journeys in order to fulfill what they might describe as “The American Dream. Throughout Ragtime several characters venture upon momentous journeys whether they be sensible or unwise, in order to try and achieve their personal pursuit of the American dream. Tateh’s dream of survival and the basic pursuit of happiness is a worthwhile dream that ventures him through many long journeys with his daughter. Tateh and his daughter, known as “The Little Girl,” are poor immigrants who live in a tenement in New York City. On the verge of losing himself and his daughter, Tateh sets out upon a journey that forever changes his life for the better.
As the narrator describes the beginning, “Throwing their few clothes in a musty suitcase [Tateh] took the girl by the hand and left the two- room flat on Hester Street forever” (Doctorow 90). Tateh has made a decision in his life for the better of him and his daughter. Tateh has put he and his daughter in a situation of survival by leaving Hester Street. As Tateh and his daughter continue on their journey Doctorow leaves the reader clues of Tatehs future success.
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A foreshadowing event occurs while they are on the train, as Doctorow states, “Tateh clutched the suitcase on his lap and kept his eyes on the tracks ahead, shining now in the single beam of the powerful electric headlamp on the front of the train car” (95). The light of the train, revealing the clear path of the tracks, most assuredly symbolized the promising future for Tateh and his daughter. The level of Tateh’s determination and optimism for the future are also revealed in the author’s definitive language.
Establishing financial security through the publication of what are known as his “movie books,” Tateh celebrates the lifestyle he can now provide for his daughter: “Come, we’ll find a boardinghouse in a good neighborhood and then we’ll have ourselves a meal and a hot bath” (133). As Tateh begins to realize his dreams, he steps beyond the role of a caretaker and provider, achieving individual happiness through the intimacy of a marital relationship with Mother. Mother adores Tateh’s movie books, thus respecting his means of providing for a family, she is everything Tateh wished for in a wife.
In the end Tateh went beyond his initial dreams of survival and security, achieving a level of success clearly reflective of the American Dream: “The family found tenants for the house in New Rochelle and moved to California. They lived in a large white stucco house with arched windows and an orange tile roof. There were palm trees along the sidewalk and beds of bright red flowers sitting on the front lawn” (319). Tateh’s pursuit of happiness is complete. The antithesis to Tateh is Doctorow’s character, Father.
Father’s dream to attain historical significance leads him on a journey that results in rejection and tragedy. As the reader is first introduced to Father, it appears that he has everything imaginable, a wonderful family, financial security and autonomy as the owner of his own successful company that manufactures fireworks and other accoutrements of patriotism, such as flags and banners. Father is willing to sacrifice all that he has to seek personal fame while attempting to make history through discovery. He did not, however, step easily out of one dream and into another.
After journeying several months with the Peary expedition, which is seeking to discover the North Pole, Father is sent home due to his physical frailties. Ironically, the American flag Father’s company creates for the occasion, is set in the ground when Commander Peary reaches his destination. As Doctorow states, “The flag snapped and rippled. Peary posed the Esquimos in front of the flag and took their picture” (81). Returning defeated from his pursuit of the North Pole, Father is not very successful re-engaging with the idyllic life and family he had left behind.
As Doctorow states, “He wandered through the house finding everywhere signs of his own exclusion. His son now had a desk, as befitted all young students. He thought he heard an Arctic wind but it was the housemaid Brigit pushing an electric suction cleaner across the rug in the parlor” (109). Father’s “treasures” brought home from his expedition, are not perceived as valuable or even desirable to his family: “He pulled Arctic treasures from his trunk…incredible treasures in the North, but here in the parlor the embarrassing possessions of a savage.
The family stood around and watched him on his knees. There was nothing he had for them” (110). Father is embarrassed by his family’s response and lack of interest. Father is struggling to reconcile the dream he left behind and the dream he pursued but does not accomplish. As the book progresses, Father grows increasingly distant from his family. At one point in the novel Father realizes he is no longer attracted to mother in a lustful way, most likely symbolizing the increasing separation he is experiencing from his family.
As the narrator details, “Once accustomed to life together after his return from the Arctic, they had slipped into an undemanding companionship in which he felt bypassed by life, like a spectator at an event” (216). Father’s quest for personal fame and historical significance is sadly fulfilled only through his death. As Father attempts to help in the war effort, he boards the Lusitania, a merchant ship carrying “a manifest of volatile war material” (318) manufactured by his company.
Father becomes one of the twelve hundred victims when the ship is torpedoed and his explosives “contributed to the monstrous detonations in the ship that preceded its abrupt sinking” (318). Nameless amongst the tragedy, Father’s life reflects “the immigrant, as in every moment of his life, arriving eternally on the shore of his Self” (318) Similar to both Father and Tateh, Coalhouse Walker is a character who adventures upon a journey to achieve his very own personal but symbolic American Dream. Coalhouse Walker’s dream is simply but the equality of people with regard to race.
Coalhouse confronts racism directly when he is involved in a racial injustice when a compensation is demanded of him in order to pass down the road. The vandalism to Coalhouse’s car by the firemen, the worst of which included defecation, highlights the lowest level of respect for a human being. As defended by Coalhouse, “I did not drive my car off the road nor slash the roof nor defecate in it. I want the damage paid for and I want an apology” (178). Coalhouse then embarks on his relentless pursuit for equality, seeking formal representation but being denied even by those of his own race.
In his personal life, Coalhouse not only postpones his commitment to marriage, but then ultimately looses the women he loves, who is also his strongest supporter, in a violent death as she attempts to assist him in his pursuit of equality and justice: “Coalhouse was on his knees beside the bed. His head was bowed and with his two hands he held the hand of Sarah. Afterwards [Mother and Father] heard the sepulchral sounds of a grown man’s grief” (193). The wedding savings are now used for Sarah’s funeral expenses and Coalhouse turns his grief into anger and militancy.
As Coalhouse feed’s his anger through destruction and murder he eventually realizes this offers him no satisfaction. Returning to his original conflict Coalhouse seeks respect and equality by insuring that his once vandalized vehicle is returned to him in its original condition and on these terms he agrees to be held accountable for the crimes of compassion that he has committed. Unfortunately, the respect and inequality he desperately and not at all foolishly pursued came at the highest price, his life: “In the bright floodlit street the black man was said by 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” (301). From the beginning to the end of the novel, various interpretations of the American Dream are portrayed through Doctorow’s characters. Survival, historical recognition and equality, all admirable dreams on their own. However, within the context of a personal life, these dreams might be considered foolish at times because of the consequences or sacrifices required. Work Cited Doctorow, E. L. Ragtime. New York: Random House, 2007