Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was an “American, editor, professor, and novelist, best known internationally for his contribution of historical fiction(Wikipedia.org.)” Doctorow was defined as one of the most important American novelists of the 1900’s. During the time of the century in the U. S., introduced new inventions, new ways of living, and new cultures. At this time, it was called the “progressive era.” The major cities were thriving, and new attractions came every day. The narrative and the characters in the novel, Ragtime, signify the changes of this era.
Starting from Evelyn Nesbit, to mother, to Emma Goldman evolved in this period. “Emma Goldman, an anarchist,” fought for liberty in all facets of life. Mother was forced to become the head of the family and grew into a strong and independent woman who could support herself and her family. Evelyn, an attractive model dissected by the public, was an example of beauty and wealth for all people. She illustrated the new trend of open sexuality and was a prominent example of the trouble fame can cause.
Doctorow portrayed these characters and their different stories which reflected the changing ideals of America in the early 20th century.
Evelyn Nesbit was the new role model of the country at the turn of the century. “Evelyn Nesbit was the most beautiful, most photographed and possibly the most admired woman in America” (Uruburu, 1). Evelyn’s father died when she was young, leaving her and her mother to support themselves. Evelyn was a beautiful child and artists were constantly asking to use her as a model.
Evelyn’s mother used these opportunities and moved to New York to further her daughter’s career at a very young age. The young girl became the breadwinner for the family; her beauty and emerging sexuality paid the bills and put food on the table. Stanford White was a famous architect who took a special interest in Evelyn. He showered Evelyn with money and jewelry, and they had a relationship until she left him for Harry Thaw. Thaw was abusive to Evelyn, but he helped further her career and gave her stability, so she did not leave him. Thaw and Evelyn were married, but he never forgot about her previous relationship with White. He greatly wanted vengeance and ended up shooting White. Thaw was put in a mental institution after the murder, leaving Evelyn alone. With Thaw gone, Evelyn’s beauty “was wasted away before cheap audiences” (Taylor, 1). Evelyn reformed the role of women’s sexuality in society. She exposed her beauty and femininity, using them to make a living. As Goldman said: Evelyn was a woman “forced to find her genius in the exercise of her sexual attraction” (Doctorow, 54). This conveyed that Evelyn set was not an admirable one. During that time many women innovated their places due to urbanization, but Evelyn did not. “Men saw the way Evelyn’s face on the front page of a newspaper sold out the edition”(Doctorow, 84). She was seen as a sex symbol, and her looks were all that people noticed. Society used her as a model of what to look like. She was used to draw audiences in; she was what people wanted to see. She also gave people the idea that they could rise up from poverty and become rich. This was false hope; she was simply lucky to go from rags to riches, not everyone could do that. Evelyn looked weak and needy compared to many other women of the century, she thrived on attention.
Mother was a figure who represented the stronger side of women at the turn of the century. While father was off at the North Pole, mother took on the role of head of the family. She became independent and learned how to control the family business. “She was in some way not as vigorously modest as she’d been. Mother could now speak crisply of such matters as unit cost, inventory and advertising. She had assumed executive responsibilities” (Doctorow, 111-112). She overcame the limitations that society and men had put upon women. Emma Goldman was another woman who advanced with urbanization. She was “a passionate advocate of freedom of expression, sexual freedom and birth control, equality and independence for women, radical education, union organization and workers’ rights” (Jewish Women’s Archive). She was an anarchist and befriended Evelyn. Goldman recognized Evelyn’s weaknesses and pointed them out to her: “Your beauty is no more than the beauty of gold, which is to say false and cold and useless… You are the embodiment in woman of everything I pity and abhor” (Doctorow, 57). The differences between these two women were great. Evelyn was weak and subordinate, while Goldman was fearless and fought for freedom.
The advancement of women during the period of urbanization was a prominent theme in this novel. New inventions were introduced every day; there were electric streetcars, automobiles, skyscrapers, telephones, and films. Immigrants flooded the country looking for better lives. The cities were filled with different cultures and lifestyles. With new inventions came new opportunities for jobs; women could work on typewriters or at the telephone switchboards. With all of this change came the ability for women to break out and join movements to fight for their rights. In 1890, the National American Woman Suffrage Association was created. Women banded together and fought to gain positions outside of the home. No longer were women limited to being wives and mothers, they could have money-earning jobs. Evelyn remained the same while everything else was evolving. She kept her job as a model and somewhat of a prostitute. She had the money she needed, but she did not fight for respect. Unlike Evelyn, both mother and Emma Goldman seized this opportunity to get out into society and advance their positions. Goldman made speeches all over the country promoting her beliefs and gathering followers. She called for absolute freedom and made fiery speeches, often being arrested while speaking. Her perseverance was one of the strongest of the new ideals of women emerging at this time.
Evelyn, mother, and Goldman were three characters in this novel who exemplified the changes made in America at the turn of the century. Their personalities and different events in their lives showed how the country was evolving. Evelyn represented and contributed to the growing theme of sexuality in everyday life. She was the first true “sex goddess”. Mother showed that women could survive without their husbands and could make their own livings. Goldman led women as well as men to be free and make their own opinions. The urbanization of the country gave women new roles in society and these characters demonstrated the new ideals and roles.