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Oppression in E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime

This study will examine the theme of oppression in E.L. Doctorow's satirical novel Ragtime, and the suggestion that art is one way to transcend such oppression. The book is, in fact, a compendium of the economic, racial, sexual, social, political, artistic and spiritual oppression of Americans and immigrants to America in the early years of the twentieth century. Most of the characters, historical, invented, or a combination of both, are not aware of the oppression which shapes and misshapes their lives. Whether victims or victimizers, most of Doctorow's characters move through their lives oblivious as sleepers to the dismal reality in which they dwell. The American culture as pictured by Doctorow is a thoroughly oppressive realm where only artists seem to have any idea what is going on, what is wrong, and what can be done to escape that wrong if not to make it right. Still, this hardly means that the artists--the Little Boy, Houdini, Tateh and Coalhouse Walker--entirely rise above the oppression. To the contrary, they are often the most sensitive to the oppression and therefore the ones who suffer the most, whether they find success and acceptance with their artistry or not. The most crucial feature of these artists is their ability to think for themselves, a quality of mind and character which is decidedly absent from those who blindly wallow in the oppression, either as victims or victimizers. In other words, whatever suffering oppression breeds in terms of economic, political, racial and other injustices, the greatest damage it does is to turn individuals into machines who conform out of fear and habit. Artists are shown by Doctorow to be the ones with at least the potential for transcending such oppression on the levels of perception and creativity.

The greed, hatred and corruption in the turn-of-the-century American culture portrayed by this novel are rampant. The national culture is the equivalent of a madhouse. The one way...

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Oppression in E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime. (2000, January 01). In Retrieved 05:50, February 20, 2017, from