E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime is a complex and yet popular novel. There are numerous themes running throughout the novel, themes of race and class, but one theme often overlooked by the critics is that of sex. It is not to say that there is more sex in Ragtime than any other modern fiction, but for two characters, Mother and Father, the dynamics of their sexual relationship change throughout the novel, signifying both their individual transformations as characters, and the turbulent changes that society experienced during the time period encapsulated by the novel.
Ragtime opens in the early 1900s, a time period that now seems quaint. “That was the style, that was the way people lived. Women were stouter then. There was a lot of sexual fainting. There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants. On Sunday afternoon, after dinner, Father and Mother went upstairs and closed the bedroom door”. In fact, Doctorow soon introduces both Negroes and immigrants into the novel. Showing that the Ragtime Era was “a time of great social, political, scientific, and industrial change” sex in the novel is one aspect of change in social America . Indeed, the three families—WASP, black, and immigrant—begin the novel leading separate lives, but end by becoming completely segregated, much like America has become.
The first great change is the interruption of “Mother and Father’s coitus” by the arrival of Harry Houdini. Houdini is in many ways symbolic of both the time period and one aspect of society that quickly faded after the passing of this era. Mass entertainment in the days before motion pictures became a big industry could sustain a Houdini. It is as if the 19th century is still hanging on. Houdini’s escape tricks will soon fade, and so at the end of part one he becomes the “focal character, desperately trying to perform acts that can compete with the events of modern life”.
This is the state of the sexual relationship between Mother and Father at the beginning of the novel. Their sexual relationship is one that will parallel the events of modern life. After Houdini’s departure, “There was no sign from Mother that it was to be resumed. She fled to her garden. As the day passed and the time for Father’s departure approached, he waited for the mute sign that he might visit her bed When the house was asleep he came to her room in the darkness. He was solemn and attentive as befitted the occasion”. Their sex life is a relic from another era.