Ragtime: The Individual and Society

Human beings are cultural beings. As such, they exist in communities and societies. The individual and the society are intertwined. They affect and influenced one another. The actions of the individuals in a society, on a grand scale, influence the society. However, in most instances, it is the individual who conforms to the demands of the society. The conformation requirement is one of the major factors that have led the American public to become disillusioned with their achievement of the American Dream. This essay, through interrogating E. L Doctorow’s Ragtime, seeks to determine how the individual and the society influence one another in the context of class, gender, and race. Analysis indicates that the society dictates the behaviors and actions of the individuals; successful members of the societies are those willing to adapt to the changing societal expectations.

One of the outstanding themes in Doctorow’s Ragtime is the conflict between the individual and the society in which he lives. The societal expectations dictate how the individuals ought to react to racial prejudices, to the gender discrimination and power distances and to class divisions (McGhee 273). Failure to observe these expectations leads to the destruction of the individuals. In Ragtime, there is extensive racial prejudice. The societal expectations were that the whites were the superior race. The African Americans and other minority groups including the immigrants did not enjoy the same rights as did the whites (Mattheson 22). The African Americans were expected to be submissive when interacting with their white fellows. The individuals who rejected the societal expectations eventually had unfavorable outcomes.


In this instance, Coalhouse Walker Jr. endeavors to change the societal expectations ignoring the racial prejudice in search of justice. This is after he encountered the racist firefighter volunteers led by Willie Conklin, who, appropriating bats, axes, and hammers, vandalize Coalhouse’s Model T Ford car, his most prized possession (Doctorow 32). When he tries to seek recourse from the police, Coalhouse is arrested for no apparent reason. Furthermore, when Sarah, Coalhouse’s fiancée tries to approach Mr. Taft’s Vice-President to plead Coalhouses’ case, she is badly injured by the secret service detail eventually leading to her death. Moreover, when Coalhouse tried to secure an attorney’s services, none was willing to represent him presumably because of his color (Doctorow 35). After realizing that his individual relationship with the society is adversarial and that due to racial prejudice he is not going to get any justice, Coalhouse transforms himself to a vigilante. Before the series mentioned above of incidents, Coalhouse was a refined black gentleman (McGhee 272). However, the incidents transformed him from a cheerful ragtime singer to a vigilante; depraved, heartless killer. Later on, scores of others, frustrated by the American justice system and the limitations of the society at the time would join Coalhouse Walker in his bid to dispense justice for his destroyed car and bereaved fiancée. Ultimately, Coalhouse’s quest for revenge gets him killed by the firing squad as he surrenders (Doctorow 94). It is clear that if there is a conflict between the individual and the society, the society prevails.

The relationship between the individual and the society was also conspicuous in gender politics. The progressive era captured by E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime shows that there is a wave of change that is spreading throughout the society. The power distance that was so apparent before Father’s expedition to the North Pole was fast diminishing (Mattheson 24). As with the racial prejudice, the individual who failed to adapt to societal expectation eventually lost. Father refused to acknowledge that the female were enjoying more rights and freedoms. Mother had become an idealist and, with the likes of Evelyn Nesbit, had rediscovered their sexuality (Matthesson 25). Father found this phenomenon immoral, offensive and inappropriate for a woman. The power distance and gender inequality had also reduced. Mother even adopts Sarah and her son without Father’s consent and her decision, even though a female, stands (Doctorow 102).  Due to the unwillingness to conform to the societal expectations Father levitates into depression and later on dies aboard the sinking RMS Lusitania ship. Evelyn Nesbit and Mother who appreciated and adapted to the societal changes prevail with Mother getting married to Tateh and living the fairytale-like happily ever after. 

The individual-society conflict subsisted beyond racial issues to issues of social class stratification and mobility. The individuals in the society were categorized and placed in social strata. The capitalistic society divided individuals into those who had capital and the workers. At the top of the hierarchy, there were the wealthy persons of Henry Ford and J. P Morgan’s ilk while at the bottom belonged people like Tateh wallowing in abject poverty. However, while the society sustained the status quo, it also provided mechanisms through which an individual could move up the social ladder (Raja 106). The changes in the society were largely supported by the progressive era at the time. As such, individuals who worked hard enough experienced upward social mobility whereas those who did not remain in the same economic conditions. A good instance is Tateh’s transformation from a pauper to a rich person. The transformation, however, was only achieved after the individual, in this instance Tateh changed his mindset and lifestyle to conform to that of the society (Raja 107).

Before his entrepreneurial exploits, Tateh was a mere Jewish immigrant professing socialism. He worked at a woolen company for meager wages. However, after getting tired of being exploited, Tateh embraced capitalism exploiting business opportunities through entrepreneurship. He even relocated to Lawrence and other places so as to avoid the unique societal constraints in the form of social injustices that were stifling his upward social mobility in New York (Doctorow 148). The society, therefore, through reinforcing the myth of redemptive marketplace provided an avenue for individuals like Tateh, who work hard enough to achieve their American Dream (Raja 108). The social strata that were created by the society separating the likes of Tateh and his family living in the immigrants’ slums from the family of Father and Mother living in the opulent suburbs finally got eroded by the same set of mechanisms provided by the society. In the end, Tateh and Mother, though from different social classes, get married. Had Tateh not succeeded commercially and transformed into a willing member of the corporate capital the two might not have ended up falling in love and getting married (Raja 108). However, it is imperative to note that the exceptionalism displayed by the society can only be explored by individuals and not through collective solidarity.

In conclusion, it is evident that the individual and society are deeply intertwined. The individual can effect changes in the society while the society too formulates expectations that an individual should comply with. Coalhouse’s failure to observe the societal expectations on racial prejudice led to his demise. Father’s failure to appreciate the gender inequality changes in the society led to his depression, isolation, and untimely death. However, Mother and Tateh who appreciated and adapted to the changes in the society with regards to gender imbalance and capitalist approaches excelled in life. Thus, while the individual and the society proportionately influence one another, if there is a conflict, the latter almost always prevails.

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