E. L. Doctorow’s fictional treatment is effective because it is anchored in historical events but not completely bound to fact. The author includes numerous people who actually lived in the Gilded Age and relates events that took place in various New York locations. Those people are also portrayed through fictional interactions with the characters of Doctorow’s invention. He both indicates how novel circumstances might have affected real people and speculates on ways that his characters might have behaved if they had been present during real events.
As he highlights the huge gap between the tremendous wealth accumulated by the few and the dire circumstances of the many, Doctorow encourages the reader to understand not only peaceful social reform movements but why people engaged in violent opposition.
The narrator, Little Boy, reflects on occurrences in his boyhood and thus shows the workings of an upper-middle-class, white family. His uncle, Mother’s Younger Brother, ties into elite New Yorkers’ scandals through his infatuation with the real-life Evelyn Nesbit. Coalhouse Walker, the African American protagonist, has tragic flaws which lead to devastating consequences. The reader is likely to understand how his grief and frustrations with the racial and social injustice in the system boil over but not necessarily condone his extreme tactics.
The changing gender dynamics of the era are shown through the real-life anarchist activist Emma Goldman, who embodies women’s rapidly changing political roles. A more moderate dynamic is revealed by the fictional Mother, who runs the household while allowing her husband to believe he is exerting patriarchal control.