Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow, is a story about the American dream. Set in New York during the “period of Ragtime” between the turn of the 20th century and the beginning of World War I, Ragtime tells the story of three different families struggling to find their place in this new America.
Doctorow makes use of an unusual writing style in Ragtime. He eschews the use of quotation marks and line breaks during dialogue, making the visual appearance of the novel one of long, blocky paragraphs. In addition, Doctorow writes the novel in third person from the perspective of not one but all of the main characters, allowing us to see the innermost thoughts and feelings of everyone in the story in turn. The characters have various degrees of name specificity, ranging from simply “Mother” and “Father” to “Sarah” (nobody knows her last name) to “Coalhouse Walker Jr.” All of these stylistic decisions come together to make a surprisingly fluid novel where actions speak much louder than words.
One of the themes running through Ragtime is the begrudging nature of the tolerance given to ethnic minorities during the period. Prejudice is rampant, and often times what someone says is quite different from what they actually think. In such a society, actions are often a much better indicator of a person’s true feeling than their voiced opinions. By removing quotation marks Doctorow downplays the dialogue in the novel, to the point that the reader stops really listening to what the characters are saying and instead looks to their actions to find their motivation. When the firemen antagonize Coalhouse, they do it with pleasant smirks and genteel words that are obviously concealing the disgust and hatred beneath. The minute Coalhouse leaves his car unattended, the firemen set to work vandalizing it and making it unusable. Their actions show their true feelings about him, even when they deny touching the car upon his return. With no quotation marks their statements run together and the reader almost doesn’t notice they said anything at all; their words have no more visual significance than the rest of the narration.
Doctorow emphasizes this effect often by juxtaposing a character’s statements or thoughts with a frank description of their actions. While he does not overtly state the discrepancy for the reader, placing a specific action next to a contrasting comment or thought allows the reader to make that jump for themselves. Father stating that it made the most sense for the Captain to take only his (African-American) manservant with him on the final leg of the journey to the North Pole so that the discovery could be “his and his alone” speaks to the ingrained inequality of the time – having an African-American with you didn’t really count as having another person there. In the same way, the team of Eskimos who helped them get to the pole (and without whom the trip probably wouldn’t even have happened) are seen as not counting either. The group takes a picture at the pole, and it’s described as a group of figures so bundled up that you can barely see their eyes. Doubtless any explorers the Captain would show that picture to would probably completely ignore the other figures and only see the Captain himself.
Ragtime is a beautifully-woven story of different families coming together and learning from one another in an era of change. Doctorow’s writing style makes it surprisingly readable and engaging, and he leaves just enough implied to allow the reader to make the final leap themselves.