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Ragtime Essay, Research Paper

Sex in Ragtime

Throughout the novel, there are instances of both violent and more refined

sexual references. While an obvious reason for these is the titillating effects

of them, there are deeper, more relevant reasons for them. There are three main

groups within which the sexual activity takes place: Father and Mother, Younger

Brother and Evelyn Nesbit, and Harry Houdini and Harry K. Thaw. Some are more

obvious and explicit than others, but they all have great purpose. The sexual

activity between Father and Mother is used to define their relationship, sexual

activity by Younger Brother is used as a replacement for violence, and the one

scene between Houdini and Thaw is used to elucidate the difference between the

classes. The sexual activity that is most relevant to the story line occurs in

the relationship between Father and Mother. While these scenes definitely imply

sexual activity, they are definitely not as intense as the erotic scenes between

other characters. After their relationship has been analyzed, one can see that

the relationship between Mother and Father is one that seems to be held together

purely by sexual desire. The first reference to this is at the very beginning

of the novel. Doctorow writes, “On Sunday afternoon, after dinner, Father and

Mother went upstairs and closed the bedroom door”(p 4). Their marriage is happy

as long as they continue to have a good physical relationship. Whereas in the

beginning of the novel Mother and Father’s relationship was good, by the end of

the novel “He felt it had been stupid to leave his wife alone”(p 233). Mother’s

disdain for Father is conveyed to the reader when he tells her that he will be

taking their boy to the Baseball game on the following day. Doctorow writes, ”

she was checked in her response, which was to condemn him for an idiot, and when

he left the room she could only wonder that she had had that thought in the

first place, so separated from ant feeling of love”(p 226). Mother obviously

has lost her love for Father. The reason for this is outlined in the following

quotation when Father returns from his expedition to the North Pole. Doctorow

writes, “At night in bed Mother held him and tried to warm the small of his back,

curled him into her as she lay against his back cradling his strange coldness.

It was apparent to them both that this time he’d stayed away too long”(p 110).

In the case of Mother and Father, Their sexual encounters are a parallel

description of their overall relationship. When sex is good, their relation

ship is good; when sex is cold, their relationship is cold. This parallelism is

demonstrated before Father leaves for his voyage. Doctorow writes, “He was

solemn and attentive as befitted the occasion. Mother shut her eyes and held

her hands over her ears. Sweat from Father’s chin fell on her breasts”(p 12).

Just as their sex is solemn, their relationship is, at this point, very solemn.

The most obvious instance of a violent sexual act is when Younger Brother falls

out of the closet while watching Emma Goldman give Evelyn Nesbit a massage. “He

was clutching in his hands, as if trying to choke it, a rampant penis which,

scornful of his intentions, whipped him about the floor, launching to his cries

of ecstasy or despair, great filamented spurts of jism that traced the air like

bullets and then settled slowly over Evelyn in her bed like falling ticker

tape”(Doctorow 64). In this very explicit scene, Doctorow shows Younger

Brother’s immature, almost adolescent side, by showing his inability to control

his sexuality. It is almost as if he had found a new toy that did not want to be

summoned from the depths of his soul. Now that he has found it, he must pacify

it. Once he fails to pacify it, violence takes over his being, and he joins

Coalhouse Walker’s crusade. This relationship between sex and violence is first

alluded to in the beginning of the novel. Doctorow writes, “Across America sex

and death were barely distinguishable”(p 4). When he pleases is carnal appetite,

he has control over his life. As soon as he is unable to satisfy his sexual

urges, he loses control and starts making bombs. He replaces his libido with

violence. The most brief and seemingly insignificant sexual reference is

actually one of the most important to the meaning of the novel. When Houdini is

performing his escape from a prison cell, he happens to see Harry K Thaw in the

cell across from him. In a seemingly insignificant sexual act “[Harry K. Thaw]

came up to the front of his cell and raising his arms in a shockingly obscene

manner he thrust his hips forward and flapped his penis between the bars(p 30).

This scene, while seemingly just a case of one man taunting another, is actually

representative of the class struggle between two people who are probably of the

same wealth, but nevertheless they are of different classes. They represent two

different types of class struggle. The first is the class struggle between the

recent immigrant and the long standing American. Although they are both

American citizens and are in the same monetary class, Thaw feels as if he is

superior to Houdini, simply because of their respective cultures. The second

conflict that is alluded to in this prison scene is the conflict between the new

rich and the old rich. Just as F. Scot Fitzgerald’s elicits in his novel Great

Gatsby, the difference between these two classes creates conflicts that at times

can be insurmountable. Class struggle is a theme that comes up throughout the

novel. The reason for this earlier provocative scene is to introduce this

problem. Whether violent or more subtle, the sexual references in Ragtime serve

a much more important purpose than for pure entertainment value. They help to

convey not only the plot, but the theme of class struggle to the reader as well.

One has to wonder: do all seemingly titillating scenes in novels and movies

actually serve a much higher purpose?


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