Themes and Meanings
The principal theme of Ragtime is summed up in Doctorow’s description of novelist Theodore Dreiser, who, “suffering terribly from the bad reviews and negligible sales of his first book, Sister Carrie, took to sitting on a wooden chair in the middle of [his] room. One day he decided his chair was facing in the wrong direction.” He turns the chair several times to the right “to align it properly,” but each time he stops and tries to sit in the chair, “it still felt peculiar. . . . Eventually he made a complete circle and still could not find the proper alignment for the chair. . . . Through the night Dreiser turned his chair in circles seeking the proper alignment.” Doctorow makes it clear in Ragtime, through his portrayal of both fictional characters and actual historical personages, interwoven throughout the story, that America is a country shaped physically and psychologically by people searching obsessively for “the proper alignment,” which might better be thought of as a sure and satisfactory sense of place and belonging in the world and the universe. Besides Dreiser, two other actual historical figures whom Doctorow uses to illustrate his theme further are Robert Peary and John Pierpont Morgan.
While Dreiser’s futile search for the proper alignment is enacted in a rented room where he finds himself in a nadir of self-doubt and depression, Peary’s “lifetime of effort” is to find the exact center of the top of the world; yet, although the boundaries of Peary’s search are incomparably wider than Dreiser’s in his room, Doctorow describes the Arctic explorer’s ultimate predicament as exactly the same as the writer’s, as far as a proper alignment is concerned. Having arrived in the general area where he believes the North Pole to be, Peary struggles...
(The entire section is 743 words.)