Ragtime By E.L Doctorow Essay, Research Paper
E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime and the Rise of Women’s Liberation
One of the central themes of E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime is the tranformation of the leading female charactes of the novel from stereotypical repressed Victorian women into liberated and even feminist heroines. Doctorow’s choice of the women’s movement as a theme is appropriate to the period of his novel, which is set in the decade between l906 and l9l5. This was an heroic period in the women’s movement, and the newspapers and books of the day were full of the scandalous affairs of women who were supposed to represent either the downfall or the triumph of their sex. In this essay, we will examine the rise of the women’s movement as it is reflected in the story of Ragtime to see how Doctorow utilized the events of the day to develop his mythical American archetypes.
The women’s movement already had a long and vigorous history by the turn of the century, yet women in America remained nearly as oppressed as they had been half a century earlier, when the feminists of the Seneca Falls resolution voiced the following complaint:
In marriage, a wife was compelled to pledge obedience and to give her husband “power to deprive her of her liberty.” In business, man “monopolized nearly all the profitable employments.” And in morals, woman suffered from an iniquitous double standard dictated by men who claimed it as their right to “assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and her God.”
In the Victorian atmosphere where the family unit was considered sacred, and the morals of women suspect, the feminists of the latter l9th century inevitably ran against the tide of public opinion. The whole question of female sexuality was considered taboo, as some feminists found out when they first gave voice to radical ideas:
In the 1870s Victoria Woodhull, a friend of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cade Stanton, endorsed free love and licensed prostitution in her weekly newspaper… Horace Greeley, among others, had previously stated that he could not support the feminists because they were too closely tied to the cause of free love. Now, Woodhull’s pronouncements, and her widely publicized association with feminists, appeared to confirm Greeley’s allegation…
The typical attack upon the women’s movement, on every issue from labor reform to suffrage, was that women’s sexual instincts were too delicate (or too dangerous) to be loosed upon the world. Such scandals supported the patriarchal contention that women could not be trusted with equality, but they also served to keep the women’s issues in the forefront of the American popular imagination.
The three scandals of women at the turn of the century that Doctorow weaves into the tapestry of Ragtime are the shooting of Evelyn Nesbit, the outcry against prostitution that was raised by Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie, and the persecution of the radical socialist Emma Goldman. Each of these stories shows a slightly different aspect of the condition of women in late Victorian times, and Doctorow clearly feels that they represent turning points in the popular attitude toward women. The influence of these famous figures on the lives of the fictional women of Ragtime, Mother, Sarah, and the Little Girl, is profound, if slow in its development.
The story of Evelyn Nesbit with which E. L, Doctorow opens his novel was the “Champagne Murder” scandal in which Nesbit’s depraved husband, millionaire playboy Harry Thaw, shot and killed her lover, the prominent architect Stanford White, at the opening night of a musical at Madison Square Garden. Nesbit was a famed beauty, a photographer’s model who had been seduced by White at age 16 and had married Thaw at 20, apparently without abandoning her relationship with the older man. In the tabloid press and magazines of the day, Nesbit was depicted as the ideal of beauty and charm:
She had an oval face, copper curls, hazel eyhes, a voluptuous mouth, and a splendid figure. When Taw eventually came to trial, and his wife was called to give evidence, columnist Dorothy Dix wrote: “Her beauty consists in something as vague and intangible as that of a lily or any other frail or delicate thing. It is something that lies over her face like a gossamer veil, infinitely appealing.
The sordid details of Thaw’s murder trial revealed that Evelyn Nesbit was far from an innocent, and that her lovers were both sadistic debauchees. Nevertheless, Nesbit’s reputation as a fatal beauty was only enhanced by the scandal.
In Ragtime, Doctorow has the suggestible character known as Mother’s Younger Brother conceive an insane passion for Evelyn Nesbit, based on his reasoning that “the death of her lover Stanford White and the imprisonment of her husband Harry K. Thaw left her in need of the attentions of a genteel middle-class young man with no money.” This delusion is in part fostered by the hysteria of the press at the trial, and the allure of Evelyn Nesbit took on an added dimension from the fact that she…
…had caused the death of one man and wrecked the life of another…from that he deduced that there was nothing in life worth having, worth wanting, but the embrace of her thin arms.
Mother’s Younger Brother is a fanatic who later leads an armed band in the army of Coalhouse Walker, Jr., and ultimately escapes to Mexico afther Walker’s capture and execution. With respect to his infatuation with Evelyn Nesbit, however, he simply follows the sexual stereotype of the Gibson Girl that prevailed in that period.
Doctorow has Nesbit’s story tie in with the theme of radical feminism in this period by bringing her to social consciousness, then having her friend Tateh take her to a socialist meeting where the firebrand Emma Goldman is speaking. Goldman represented all of the most dangerous and radical ideas of feminist socialists at that time, and having Goldman instruct the sexual slave Nesbit offers the maximum contrast of feminine archetypes:
In five minutes Evelyn was immersed in the bracing linguistics of radical idealism. She didn’t dare confess to Tateh that she had no idea socialism and anarchism weren’t the same thing, or that the idea of seeing the notorious Emma Goldman frightened her…
Goldman’s speech is a fiery harangue in which she challenges the audience, “…can you socialists ignore the double bondage of one-half of the human race?” In attacking marriage, Goldman attacked the most sacrosanct of Victorian institutions, and the reaction of more traditional socialists like Tateh shows why the most radical feminists of this period were regarded as beyond the pale by many progressives and leftists.
In the remarkable erotic scene between Emma Goldman and Evelyn Nesbit, all of the most radical ideas of feminism are given voice in a single episode: freedom from the corset, lesbianism, the female orgasm, and the repudiation of marriage. Yet the real significance of Evelyn Nesbit’s radical liberation lies in it connection to a more important liberation, that of Mother in her new freedom from Father. The episode in which the pregnant black girl Sarah and her baby are taken in at the family house marks a turning point in Mother’s life. After Father returns from the North Pole Expedition with Peary, he finds his wife a changed woman:
He looked in Mother’s eyes to detect their his justice. He found instead a woman curious and alerted to his new being… She was in some way not as vigorously modest as she had been. She took his gaze. She came to bed with her hair unbraided.
In a pattern that is the reverse of Evelyn’s, Mother discovers the freedom of her sexuality through the rebirth of her social conscience and nurturing instinct. She epitomizes the mature Victorian woman’s plunge into the women’s movement, and the quick pace that emancipation took after respectable women of the upper-middle classes took a part in securing the vote.
Much of the concern with the sexual fate of women that Doctorow explores in Ragtime was quite clearly inspired by the example of Theodore Dreiser, the great American realist writer whose novel Sister Carrie had been widely attacked and suppressed because of the frank treatment of the subject of prostitution it contained. There is a poignant scene in Ragtime which shows Dreiser “suffering terribly from the bad reviews and negligible sales of his first book Sister Carrie,” and which can be taken as an acknowledgement by Doctorow of his debt to Dreiser.
Sister Carrie was in fact a bold attack on sexual hypocrisy, which showed how the structures of Victorian marriage and economic disenfranchisement combined to drive many women into prostitution. The novel’s scandal can certainly be regarded as one of the landmark events in the women’s movement in this period, even if Dreiser was not a true feminist. His moral theme was directed as much against the corruption of men by lust as against the degradation of women by sex. As Dreiser’s seducer, Hurstwood “looked upon most women with suspicion– a single eye to the utility of beauty and dress.” This is the rogue who first proposes to Carrie that she just “come away” with him, becoming his mistress. At first, Carrie is “struck as by a blade with the miserable provision whicdh was outside the pale of marriage.” Eventually, however, Carrie is forced by desperation to prostitute herself in order to survive at all.
The relevance of Sister Carrie to the women’s movement lies in its sinister prediction of the fate of women who are left to fend for themselves in the moral wilderness of the American city. Carrie is the ideal object of the women’s movement’s projects such as Hull House in Chicago, which strove to save the virtue of young girls coming to the city. Carrie’s bafflement at her own descent into despair is despair at the conflict between ideals and reality:
The glamour of the high life of the city had, in the few experiences afforded her by the former, seized her completely. She had been taught how to dress and where to go without having ample means to do either…The more circumscribed became her state, the more entrancing seemed this other. And now poverty threatened to seize her entirely…
Yet it was one of the chief goals of the women’s movement of this period to prevent young women from being forced into marriage at the expense of a career and a life of their own. The contradiction implied by the repudiation of marriage on the one hand, and the struggle against oppression and prostitution on the other, can only be understood when prostitution is seen as the other side of the coin of Victorian sexual mores.
The central issues of radical feminism are all explored in Ragtime, and Doctorow evidently recognizes that the turn of the century was a crucial period in the development of the women’s rights. Before suffrage and equality before the law were granted, the legal and moral rightness of the women’s movement could hardly be disputed. As Midge Decter, one of the movement’s severest critics from within, points out,
The early Feminists were forced not onlly to demand the vote but to establish in theory their right to it, as they did their right to be educated, to own property, to run for public office, or to sue someone in a court of law…
Today, when the issues of discrimination are more subtle and subjective, it is possible to argue as Decter does that many of the injustices suffered by women are self-inflicted. Such was not the case at the turn of the century, when the prostitution of a Sister Carrie seemed the only viable alternative to the subjugation to husband or the enslavement to the sweatshops for many women.
All of these issues are explored, directly or indirectly, in Ragtime. The problem of marriage and legitimacy is explored through the relationship of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and Sarah, and their tragic end suggests that Doctorow takes a jaundiced view of the belief that legal marriage solves all the problems of the womanh’s situation. The opposing themes of the courtesan and the radical feminist, as developed through the characters of Evelyn Nesbit and Emma Goldman, point to the larger conflict faced by intellectually and sexually active women in confronting a repressed Victorian society. The closest parallel to Dreiser’s indictment of prostitution and the conditions which cause it can be found in the story of Mameh, who is repudiated by Tateh after she is forced to prostitute herself to survive.
At the same time, Ragtime concludes with what can only be seen as a restatement of the basic theme that woman’s salvation is to be found in a happy marriage with a good man and plenty of children. Mother, who is in the final analysis the central female character of the book, wanders away from the strictures of her Victorian marriage even before Father dies in the sinking of the Lusitania; Father, of course, had already violated the marriage compact with Eskimo women in the course of his expedition, a feat which reflects the double-standard that Victorian men applied to vows of marital fidelity. At the conclusion of the book, however, Mother emigrates to California with Tateh, and finds in their combination of qualities the basis for a new and stable marriage relationship. As Doctorow relates their courtship and elopement,
Mother wore black for a year. At the end of this time Tateh, having ascertained that his wife had died, proposed marriage. he said I am not a baron, of course. I am a Jewish socialist from Latvia. Mother accepted him without hesitation…Their marriage was joyful though without issue.
The socialist-feminist conjunction of their marriage is clearest in their role as parents to children from previous marriages and the orphaned child of Coalhouse and Sarah. Mother and Tateh have grown beyond the conventional marriage and elevated their nurturing role to a universal plane.
All of the events in Ragtime take place before the liberating effects of World War I, after which Freud, women’s suffrage, and overt female sexuality were to take their place in the American cultural framework. The obvious relationship between Doctorow’s book and Dreiser’s Sister Carrie is ironic, since Dreiser was perhaps the definitive literary realist and Doctorow is perhaps the most unbelievable and unrealistic of novelists. Yet in their treatment of the basic women’s problems of marriage, sexuality, childrearing and social equality, Doctorow and Dreiser were perhaps closer than they appear. Doctorow’s book focuses on the turning point in the women’s movement in America, and forces the most radical and libertarian ideas directly into the heart of the American nuclear family. The result is a fascinating, if uneven and unbelievable, account of the progress of women in the first years of the century. From courtesan, prostitute and housewife, the women of Ragtime develop into dedicated and determined battlers for freedom; some of them gain that freedom, and others are lost in the struggle, as Doctorow notes at the novel’s end: “We had fought and won the war. The anarchist Emma Goldman had been deported. The beautiful and passionate Evelyn Nesbit had lost her looks and fallen into obscurity.” But out of their struggle, the first real women’s victories were gained.
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Doctorow, E. L. Ragtime. New York: Bantam Books, l975.
Dreiser, Theodore. Sister Carrie. New York: Dell, l972.
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