While Doctorow’s characters are usually memorable, they are also frequently unbelievable. Derived as they seem to be from a preconceived idea about both what America is and how the author wants to portray it, the characters often seem to be primarily embodiments of various positions in a dialectic. Indeed, Doctorow—called an ideologue by some critics—is a Shavian novelist, developing his fiction the way George Bernard Shaw developed his dramas: Thesis versus antithesis equals synthesis.
Father’s exclusively WASP view of America is the ethnocentric and theocentric thesis that Doctorow gives his reader in the first few pages of Ragtime. In the Shavian, dialectical approach to fictionalizing, the thesis is presented as a straw man of sorts, inevitably broken down or subsumed by its dialectical opposite, the antithesis. Thus, even though Father remains a character in the story until near the end, his usefulness for the underpinning dialectical tension is exhausted much earlier in the story, and in direct proportion to the increased ascendency of his antithesis. In Ragtime, however, the antithesis is two-pronged, for it consists of both Coalhouse Walker’s family and Tateh’s family, and, significantly, parts of both are combined permanently with Father’s family after he has been killed. In short, with Father’s complete removal from the story, the dialectical synthesis is realized.
Coalhouse Walker provides an excellent example of how an initially complex and engaging character may be (subject as he is to his creator’s intellectual and artistic determinism) reduced to little more than a static puppet with limited purpose. Although it might be argued that Doctorow is attempting to portray mimetically the kinds of limitations that have been traditionally imposed upon blacks by America, such an argument is undercut by Walker’s demeanor and his own high self-esteem. For example, he annoys Father because it seems that he “didn’t know he was a Negro. . . . Walker didn’t act or talk like a colored man.” Indeed,...
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Little Boy, the narrator and supposed author of this story. Neither as the narrator nor as a character in the story is his age ever made known, just as it remains unclear until near the end why he is telling the story. As a character, he generally remains on the periphery of the various events that take place in the narrative; nevertheless, what he chooses to tell about reveals his changing perceptions and individual growth. His narrative begins as a retrospective account of his boyhood in New York when, according to his earliest memories, America seemed simple, clean, good, and populated only by Caucasians. Then, along with his own white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) family (composed of himself, Mother, Father, Mother’s Younger Brother, and Grandfather), he chronicles the lives of two other families: a black family (Sarah, Coalhouse Walker, Jr., and their illegitimate infant) and an immigrant family (Tateh, Mameh, and The Little Girl). Although unfamiliar with one another at the beginning of Little Boy’s narrative, members of these three families are joined into one uniquely American family by the story’s end. The families’ fates, then, all more or less shape Little Boy’s life and character, as well as his perception of himself and America.
Father, a manufacturer of fireworks and flags, an amateur explorer and Little Boy’s father. He is—by attitude, sentiment, and occupation—the model American patriot, and he expects his family to be the model American (WASP) family. That, at least, is the stressed norm in 1906, when he leaves with Robert Peary on the famous explorer’s successful third expedition to discover the North Pole. While Father is away, however, his wife and family undergo significant changes that his absence makes possible.
Mother, who initially is a prudish creature with whom Father has had only...
(The entire section is 790 words.)