E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime is primarily concerned with the illustration of broken dreams. Drawing on the tradition of the Muckraker novels of such authors as Upton Sinclair, Doctorow shows the shadow side of the Jazz Age. The beginning of the novel deals with Father’s preparation for and participation in William Peary’s expedition to the North Pole. The theme of disillusionment that runs throughout the novel is foreshadowed and represented by the Peary expedition. Peary’s expedition, like the American Dream and the Socialist vision, is based on grand hopes. The expedition is however, marked with disappointment and results in the destruction of dreams and people. In Doctorow’s treatment, the American Dream as well as the Socialist vision share this fate. In this way, Peary’s polar expedition serves as an allegory for the entire novel.
The novel is filled with great dreams, sweeping visions and grand hopes. The general tone of the era and the American Dream are represented in the exploration of the Arctic. The North Pole represents the seemingly unattainable, and the search for it the great striving for dreams. The hardship and great difficulty of arctic exploration exemplify the romantic ideal of infinite striving. Even the accomplished Houdini is impressed with the grand scale of Father’s trip. This magnificent undertaking serves as preparation for the hopes and dreams expressed throughout the novel. The American Dream of prosperity is demonstrated throughout in the deification of industrialists and the fact that "there were no Negroes. There were no immigrants" (4). While Father’s ship is departing for the arctic, he sees not immigrants coming into New York Harbor, but "...
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... the ambiguous victory of the Peary expedition through the various social visions expressed and in the lives of his characters, Doctorow presents a vision of the Jazz Age which both presents and deconstructs the values and dreams of the period. At the end of the novel, as the narrator notes "the era of Ragtime had run out" and the hopes and dreams of a generation have come to nought. Only the characters who have adapted to the world by abandoning their initial visions survive and prosper. Ragtime, is a narrative, like the Peary expedition, of lost hopes, dashed dreams and the struggle to cope with the ambiguities of life. Like the blurred and darkened photograph of the explorers at the pole, the dreams described in the novel have developed into faded representations of themselves.
Doctorow, E.L. Ragtime. New York: Bantom/ Random House, Inc., 1976
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