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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!
o. 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 cha!
nged 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
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Ragtime, Entertainment, Magic illusion, Literature, Harry Houdini, Escapology
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