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Literary Analysis of the story Ragtime by E.L.Doctorow


The story Ragtime is a novel set in America at the beginning of this century. Its characters reflect all that is most significant and dramatic in Americas last hundred years. The author, E.L.Doctorow, an American writer, is famous for his novels which include Welcome to hard Times and The Book of Daniel which was nominated for a national Book Award. He is also a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Doctorow expressed his political beliefs as well as the time in which he wrote. The novel under discussion, Ragtime, received the first National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1976. It was nominated as One of the best ten books of the decade. The story was published in 1975, the year in which the Vietnam War came to the end. The story is about a colored man, Coalhouse Walker Jr., who is a successful and professional pianist. He comes to Broadway Avenue to find a colored woman, Sarah, with whom he had a love affair and even a child. He wants to rectify his deeds. He is very well dressed and drives a new model T-Ford. He asks the madam, from the house where Sarah resided, very politely and respectful about Sarah. The girl doesnt want to see him and he just looks at the child that was lying in the carriage, thanks and walks away. From that time he continued to come every Sunday. Father considers his visit a nuisance and wants to call the police. One Sunday he brings a bouquet of yellow chrysanthemums, which in that season cost a pretty penny and mother decides to invite him to serve tea. By the discussion, father notices no embarrassment in Walkers behaviour. Walker speaks about his job and his success and father understands that the message is addressed to the girl upstairs and this made him get angry. Coalhouse accepts to play something for the family, and namely Wall Street Rag and The Maple Leaf by Scott Joplin. Small clear chords hung in the air like flowers. The melodies were like bouquets. The whole family is enchanted and impressed but Sarah doesnt want to come at all. After this he decides to take another glance at the child and goes away. E.L.Doctorow addresses several major social changes in turn-of-the-century America in this novel. Ragtime is centered on several very different people, from rich to poor. He conveys the effects of these changes through the reaction of the characters. There are several themes that run through the story. As main theme I can mention the relations between two young people who have problems in their living. As a second theme I can 1

mention the Ragtime, and the role of music, it is used like an attempt to bring together these two persons. The racial attitude of the white family towards the black ones is considered another theme of the story. Concerning the ideas of the novel, we can say that the music Ragtime tends to bring two people together. Coalhouse Walker plays those compositions with the purpose to remind Sarah that they have spent beautiful days together, probably it was an attempt to make up with Sarah because all his was doing was very gently. The story Ragtime is written in the third person narration. The narrator is omniscient and unobtrusive as he doesnt show his opinion. The setting is dynamic and it is given explicitly. We may conclude that the action takes place in United States of America; this is pointed out by such words as New York, Manhattan. The time covers few weeks. E may also guess the season: By the words a bouquet of yellow chrysanthemums which in this season have to cost him a pretty penny we may say that it is a cold time of the year, may be it was winter. But this information is given implicitly. There are some forms of narration that perfectly render the main themes and ideas: narration, description and dialogue. The last is integrated in the narration and isnt marked as dialogue. The composition begins immediately with the initiating action giving us information about the situation referring to Coalhouse Walker and Sarah. I can say that it introduces immediately the central conflict: the external one- between Sarah and Coalhouse. The internal conflict- inside Sarah, in her heart and soul is shown to us a little bit later, in the plot of the story, which follows after the initiating action, and revolves around Coalhouse, the black musician from Harlem. He has incredible import to the main themes of the novel. His characterization provides insight into race relations in turn-of-the-century in America. . Many characters believe his social position does not warrant such behaviour. Because Coalhouse conducts himself with a sense of pride not typical for African Americans at this point in history, his expectations of how he should be treated repeatedly come into direct conflict with the expectations of other characters of how African Americans should be treated. Coalhouse Walker represents all African Americans who challenge the expectations many whites have of them.

In the climax of the story we see not a Negro but a cultured, self-conscious good musician playing the piano which had never made such sounds. The whole family was fascinated by his playing. And the denouement consists in the moment when he realizes that it has no sense to wait for Sarah, she would never come, and he lefts the house. Speaking about the style we may say that it is neutral. One thing should be mentioned that in the text some sentences are short, some sentences are long. And this fact has much in common with Ragtime music. Ragtime is the form of music in which the strong note of the tune comes just before the main beat. The title Ragtime is supposed to be the symbolic representation of the atmosphere which characterizes the scene of the novel. We may even feel the rhythm and the intonation of it. The prevalent mood can be characterized as emotional, tense, of suspense. But at the same time optimistic. There are some poetic principles manifested in the story. The recurrence is expressed through the repeated visits of Coalhouse or the words instrument, rag, chords. The contrast shows the relations between the protagonists, for example: Sarah & Coalhouse, Father & Coalhouse, Mother & Coalhouse. In order to make the language of the story more beautiful the narrator uses such stylistic devices as, for example: metaphor the warmth of the comer which proves the fact that Coalhouse Walker was not nonchalant towards his baby and that he wanted to be again with Sarah and their child; the clear chords hung in the air or the most famous rag of all rang through the air; clusters of syncopating chords and thumping octaves have the role of describing the music and the feeling that the music evoked; inversion such was the coming with the help of which the narrator makes us realize that everybody in the house was surprised by Coalhouse Walkers visit. They didnt know what the purpose of his coming was and couldnt imagine what to expect from him. The next stylistic devices are meiosis pretty penny which the narrator uses in order to underline that it was difficult to get the bouquet of yellow chrysanthemums at that time of the year and that it might cost him a packet. In order to pay stress on the fact that Sarah was really offended by Coalhouse Walkers actions and that he really wound her feelings, the narrator uses the epithet unforgiving Sarah; Other epithets are used in order to display the atmosphere of the situation and the appearance of the main character- the most natural thing, illtuned, small clear chords, nightlife period, long dark hands, pink nails, thumping octaves. And at last such similes as melodies like bouquets and chords like flowers prove that everybody in the house was inspired by the beauty of the piece of music played by Coalhouse Walker and 3

that they couldnt remain indifferent to it. The author uses also some terms which describe the professionalism of the pianist: rag time, rag, piano, tune, in need of a tune, octaves, and keyboard. Concerning the syntactical stylistic devices there are a lot of parallel constructions, for example she told him to waitshe climbed to the third floorshe found the girl; Im through travelling, he said Im through going on the road; Coalhouse was solemn Everybody was standingthere was a silence. A lot of enumerations of actions are used to show their succession: The man switched off the motor, set the brake and jumped down; the colored man took another glance at the child, rose, thanked her and departed; he rose, patted his lips with the napkin, placed the napkin beside his cup and went to the piano I like the story very much. We dont know all the details about their life and we cant judge them-have they proceded good or not. Having read it I understood that if we want to be happy, we need not only love, but also an ability to forgive. That is the idea of the extract. I hope that they will be together, because they have their child and their love.