From “the Other” towards “the Subject”
—A Study of Evelyn Nesbit in Ragtime
The purpose of this paper is two-fold. I will analyze Evelyn Nesbit’s personalities presented in Ragtime as a recreated character that is not lifted straight from the pages of the history books. With the concept “the Other” coined by French feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir in her book about existentialism, the Second Sex, I would mainly focus on analyzing Nesbit’s struggle and try to prove she eventually changes her position from an “Object” to a “Subject”.
Keywords: Ragtime, Feminist existentialism, Evelyn Nesbit
Ragtime is a historical fiction written by E. L. Doctorow, and it is featured in the fiction and historical materials combined writing style. With the background set in the period from 1902 to 1912 in New York City and surrounding areas, it presents readers with a decade’s American social costume on the eve of World War I. The novel contains several historical events and celebrities while some of them were still well-known nowadays, such as the financial magnate J. P. Morgan; the “Motor King” Henry Ford and “The Trail of the Century.” Doctorow added three fictional families as the clue as well as the protagonists in the real historical background to represent three main types of citizens and their lives. From the different perspectives, “Doctorow shows how politics, economics, and social class deeply impinge on individual lives by applying the theories of New Historicism to his novel” (Chen 28). Finished and published in 1975, Ragtime narrates some divided but connected stories of immigrants, WASPs, and African Americans. There are conflicts as well as connections between the three groups, but they also reveal the intensification of American social problems with economic development. Doctorow writes the novel at a time of the second-wave of feminism, so Ragtime is inevitably influenced by these thoughts. He adapts two historical female characters, Evelyn Nesbit and Emma Goldman to represent the development of the first-wave. As a feminist, even though Emma’s economic contribution toward the United States is obviously less than that of Ford or Morgan, her effort to promote female social status is a visible and significant milestone of the feminism movement. At the same time, Evelyn Nesbit’s change with the help of Emma is an epitome of thousands females’ awakening in the first-wave.
In Ragtime, Evelyn Nesbit is a low-born woman but fights her way out to gain herself fame and fortune. So although the false testimony conflicts to her conscience, she still makes it in order to get Harry K. Thaw’s money and make herself a victim in front of the public. But later, she takes care of the little girl, “took up the lease and paid the landlord for the pitiful furnishings” (94) where the little girl and Tateh used to stay. After Nesbit’s involvement with Tateh and the little girl, her inner space begins to change and becomes more mature and hospitable to the working class. With her staying with Goldman, Nesbit gradually realizes her life as shallow, her testimony as stupid and her marriage to Harry K. Thaw as gilded prostitution. So she begins to engage herself in politic movements and as the end of the novel goes, “lost her looks and faded into obscurity” (369).
Since it is published in 1975, analyzing papers on Ragtime have mainly focused on these aspects: Doctorow’s language, the reconstruction of historical characters, postmodernism, neorealism, and nostalgia. Ragtime is a genre of music featured of quick and passionate beats. And once this style is adapted in composing, the context would be more energetic. So Clemons writes in his review of Ragtime that “Doctorow has found a fresh way to orchestrate the themes of American innocence, energy, and inchoate ambition—with their antiphonies of complacency, disorder, and disillusion” (76). “Doctorow is praised that his sense of the telling detail is superb, and even if that were his only triumph—it is not—this novel would still be something to treasure” (Hart 892). As the creator of several prestigious works such as The Book of Daniel and the Loon Lake, Doctorow is known for his subtle but profound writing skills in recreating historical celebrities and making them an organic part of the whole book. Carl Rollyson has written in the book Critical Survey of Long Fiction that “In Ragtime, Doctorow goes even further in suggesting that much of American history has been turned into a myth. In this novel, historical figures have the same status as fictional creations” (1291). The very title of the novel, Ragtime, represents not only a famous music among that time but also the gradually heated social conflicts and rapid social progress of the United States.
However, there is a few research paper concerning the female characters in Ragtime. And most of the essays just mention these Nesbit and Goldman characters instead of analyzing them with any theory. Li says that “Evelyn left with a ragtime dancer”(115); Maria F. S. Miguel writes in her review that “characterization in Ragtime functions as a tool to expose the oppression, and, at times, violence that women faced at the turn of the century and which intersects with racial and class discrimination” (103). But these descriptions are too vague to draw such a result without a deep analysis of the personality of Evelyn Nesbit and the social atmosphere where she is in. Although Xian mentions in her work that “Nesbit is not only despised by the upper-class but also criticized by the working class. And the reason of her miserable life is her special social status” (14), it is still a pity for she does not try to argue what Evelyn’s special social status is and how she has gained such social status.
In a nutshell, the following parts would mainly focus on Evelyn Nesbit’s identities and her struggles to change her social status according to the concept of “the Other” raised by the French feminist Simone de Beauvoir. However, before moving on to the detailed analyses, it would be necessary to review the key concepts used in this paper.
II. Theoretical Framework
In her book The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir raises a concept called “The Other”, which in her words means that woman is “the privileged Other”, defined as “the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential” (16).
Additionally, Simone also specifies “the Other” as a slave and says “any more than slavery is the vocation of the slave” (262), which means that women have to submit to males’ authority due to their lack of violence. This happens in both primitive and modern society because the patriarchal system is still the foundation of nowadays’ society. And under this social contract developed by males, females have nothing to do but accept the social role distributed to her. As a part of feminist existentialism, the theory of “the Other” mainly focuses on the unequal relationship between male and female. Comparing woman to the slave or object of man, Simone reveals that woman actually has no or few social status in the patriarchal society. Judith Butler says that “the word is used by Beauvoir to mean woman as a construct or an idea, rather than woman as an individual or one of a group. The book suggests that ‘gender’ is an aspect of identity which is ‘gradually acquired’” (35).
To be brief, “the Other” clearly positions woman as an auxiliary to the man, implying that woman could only live a good life by marring or belong to a man. This theory would be used when analyzing Nesbit’s changes in her behaviors and personalities in this paper.
III. Nesbit’s Struggle as an “Other”
As a notorious socialite, Nesbit is disputed by the traditional moral standards while at the same time followed by the mass media no matter when and where. On the one hand, the mainstream value of the society is criticizing Nesbit for her chasing fame and fortune by offering her body to men. But on the other hand, Nesbit has become the sort of celebrity with her face printed everywhere. Simone de Beauvoir points out that “weakness is made objective in woman, and she is called inconstant and traitress because her body is such as to dedicate her to man in general and not to one man in particular” (181). That is the particular reason why the public likes and needs her to be the topic of their dinner conversation but hates her for her brave behavior of having romantic affairs with several males which challenges and shakes the foundation of the society, or the patriarchal system in other words.
Although Nesbit “is thought of in homes all over America as a licentious shameless wanton” (68), however, she is meanwhile “a creature of their making” (68). There’s no doubt that the word “their” implies the society which forces women to be the tool used by men while accused to be skittish. In Nesbit’s times, there was no other way for a woman but follow the criteria made by man. She is a beautiful woman with a pretty face and perfect stature who meets everyone’s standard of beauty. But the meaning of “beautiful” is defined by male and anyone who wants to satisfy it should wear steel-like stays to hold her waist and make the “marks of the stays run vertically like welts around the waist” (69). The welt-like restriction to woman’s body is the public’s stereotype to female, and it is actually a miserable but inevitable price for every female who wants to enjoy an abundant life in that time, or even nowadays. The welt directly represents the owner-servant relationship between men and women. The deeper meaning of this relationship is the dominant power of man over woman, which could be interpreted as a hierarchy and sex naturally exists to let woman satisfy man’s carnal desire. “Woman flatters not only man’s social vanity; she is the source of a more intimate pride. He is delighted with his domination over her” (Beauvoir 192). From Beauvoir’s perspective, Nesbit is actually an elegant toy of her husband, the upper-class and the patriarchal society. What others really care about is her beauty and nobody pays attention to her feelings or her joys and sorrows. At the same time, for man takes woman’s sacrifice and effort for granted, the whole society, even woman herself, acquiesce in the fait accompli with few or even no complaints.
So it makes sense that sexual violence occurs in Nesbit and her husband Harry K. Thaw’s first night together, for he treats Nesbit as a tool instead of human in the equal position with him. “Her body is not perceived as the radiation of a subjective personality, but as a thing sunk deeply in its own immanence” (Beauvoir 176). A “thing” absolutely has no human dignity and there is no need to respect but use it as Harry wishes. So “he pulled off her robe, threw her across the bed and applied a dog whip to her buttocks and the backs of her thighs. Her shrieks echoed down the corridors and stone stairwells…” (26) This is far from the end, but a start of Nesbit’s nightmare, “shocking red welts disfigured Nesbit’s flesh. She cried and whimpered all night… In the morning Harry returned to her room… with a razor strop… She was bedridden for weeks” (27). There’s no humanity in the description of Harry’s behaviors or he is actually a beast beneath the layer of human skin. Eisler Riane pinpoints the truth under the surface is “the domestication of women and the dehumanization of men” (Riane 202). And Harry’s atrocity to Nesbit could also be explained as “the psychosexual armoring that in our time continues to drive men to ever more sexual conquests” (Riane 208). According to this explanation, his behavior is not out of defeating enemies, but venting his animal desire and constructing a sense of conquest, which is based on Nesbit’s suffering.
Here comes an obvious question: Why does not Nesbit work to gain herself a higher social status? As a poor woman with no relatives to rely on, Nesbit could only get her own fortune through her efforts, or in other words, a marriage with a rich man. “For woman’s housework henceforth sank into insignificance in comparison with man’s productive labor—the latter was everything, the former a trifling auxiliary” (Beauvoir 80) and “it is through the patrimony that woman has been most strongly attached to her spouse” (142). What Nesbit could do is extremely limited because women have much lower social status than men while the public believes that the best place for women to stay is house instead of office or factory, so her best way to find herself a Mr. Right is according to her knowledge about the upper-class as a socialite. To be more specific, Nesbit’s best choice is to attach herself to a rich man to make herself more popular. Goldman points out that “Like all whores you value propriety. You are a creature of capitalism, the ethics of which are so totally corrupt and hypocritical…” (64). Even though Nesbit never makes money through selling her body, she is still a kind of whore through the marital relation with Harry because she needs to please her husband in order to feed herself. “Once Harry demanded proof of her devotion and it turned out nothing else would do but a fellatio… Afterward, he brushed the sawdust… gave her some bills from his money clip” (29). Women, as the vulnerable group in the society, would always want to find someone to rely on through marriage. But subject to the unequal relationship between man and woman, the latter one has no choice but release her husband’s desire and follow every direction according to the traditional doctrine of women.
IV. Nesbit Struggles to Be a “Subject”
“Because it is the man who ‘takes’ the woman, he has somewhat more possibility of choosing… But since the sexual act is regarded as a service assigned to woman… it is logical to ignore her personal preference” (Simone 423). Traditional ethical and moral standards put woman as a servant who must please her master, or husband in other words, by satisfying his sexual desire. During the erotic massage by Emma Goldman and the short relationship with the Younger Brother, Nesbit gradually awakes from her former role as an “Object” and tries to become a “subject”.
Under Goldman’s guidance, Nesbit finds that she is far from a tool to please man, but an independent individual who could realize her personal value. “Her eyes were closed and her lips stretched into an involuntary smile as Goldman massaged her breasts, her stomach, her legs” (70). In Goldman’s erotic massage, Nesbit gradually eases her body and begins to relax. “Nesbit put her own hands on her breasts and her palms rotated the nipples. Her hands swam down along her flanks. She rubbed her hips… [Nesbit] began to ripple on the bed like a wave on the sea” (71). Traditional sexual morality criticizes masturbation as an immoral behavior without love. But there’s also no love between Nesbit and Harry, and it is actually the sexual desire and the thirst for the fortune that combine them together. Harry wants to have sex, so he just treats Nesbit as a tool for him to play with; Nesbit wants to become one of the riches, so she married herself to Harry. Realizing her status as an “Other” imposed by the society, Nesbit finally makes her way to break the chains by finding a true self. With the help of Goldman, she unbuttoned her shirtwaist and removed it (68). After unshackling the chains, Nesbit activates her stiff limbs and enjoys the pleasure of relaxing herself.
As Greil Marcus questions in his review, “what might Evelyn Nesbit’s odyssey from the penthouses to the streets be, if Doctorow hadn’t lost his nerve with her?” (Marcus 61-2). In her relationship with the Younger Brother, Nesbit is absolutely having a pleasant experience. “They made love slowly and sinuously, humping each other into such supple states of orgasm that they found very little reason to talk the rest of the time they were together” (94). But suddenly “the Young Man was in mourning” and “Evelyn Nesbit had become indifferent to him and when he persisted his love she had become hostile” (128). Though Doctorow has already ambushed the answer before that, telling the readers “All he could do was commit his life to hers and work to satisfy her smallest whim” (100), the primary cause is that “she wanted someone who would treat her badly and whom she could treat badly. She longed a challenge to her wit” (100).
In Beauvoir’s words, “man wants to give, and here woman taking for herself” (206), which suggest men are active while women are passive. Being treated as an object which only gets a pretty face, Nesbit is fed up with the judgment made by man because “there is a double demand of man which dooms woman to duplicity… he fancies her as at once servant and enchantress” (Beauvoir 204). So she tries to regain the control of herself at the very time she doesn’t want to be an “Object” anymore. Nesbit begins her relationship with the Younger Brother out of sympathy and leaves him out of her free will for “she belongs to no man, but yields herself to one and all and lives off such commerce to regain that formidable independence” (Beauvoir 207).
“All this human progress has been accomplished by men. Women have been left behind, outside, below, having no social relation whatever, merely the sex-relation, whereby they lived” (Gilman, 45). Although Nesbit has made some difference in her own story, there is no actual change towards the male-dominant human progress. Doctorow wants to use Nesbit as a character to represent thousands of “human mother[s] [who] worked harder than a mare, laboring her life-long in the service” (47) in his time. As she has jumped out of the cage and broken the criterion of the patriarchal society, punishment is unavoidable for what she has done could not be accepted by the mainstream social ideology. The reason why Doctorow doesn’t write Nesbit thereafter she leaves the Younger Brother may well be that he wants to make the best of this character and salute to everything she has done to get out of the restriction set by the patriarchal society, her bravery and the women she represents who fight for rights and status in the feminist movements.
As a notorious socialite as well as a virtuous lady, Evelyn Nesbit leads a contradictory life between miserable existence and a life of luxury, where she struggles to build herself as an individual instead of an “Object”. Nesbit is neither a wanton nor a kind-hearted lady; she is actually a complex figure with both strength and shortcomings. Every step of Nesbit shows her thirst for change. With the help of Goldman, she gains autognosis through masturbation and gradually takes initiative about sex and her body. During her relationship with the Younger Brother, Nesbit acts as a stronger and dominant Brother’s love. So Nesbit is neither a nice person nor a greedy one, she is just an ordinary woman who wants to win an equal position and get rid of her label as an “Object” through her endeavor.
Clemons, Walter. “Houdini, Meet Ferdinand.” Rev. of Ragtime, by E. L. Doctorow. Newsweek 14 July 1975: 76. Print.
De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Trans. H. M. Parshley. 1953. London: Lowe and Brydone, 1956. Print.
Doctorow, E. L. Ragtime. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1975. Print.
Gilman, C. P. Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998. Print.
Hart, Jeffrey. “Doctorow Time.” Rev. of Ragtime, by E. L. Doctorow. National Review 15 August 1975: 892. Print.
Judith, Butler. “Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex.” Yale French Studies 72. (1986): 35–49. Print
Marcus, Greil. “‘Ragtime’ and ‘Nashville’: Failure-of-America Fad.” The Village Voice 4 August 1975: 61-2. Print.
Miguel, Maria F. S. “The Collusion of Feminist and Postmodernist Impulses in E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime” Complutense Journal of English Studies. 23 (2015): 97-114. Print.
Riane, Eisler. Sacred Pleasure: Sex, Myth, and the Politics of the Body. San Franciso: HarperCollins, 1996. Print.
Rollyson, Carl, ed. Critical Survey of Long Fiction. Pasadena: Salem Press, 2010. Print.
Sale, Roger. “From Ragtime to Riches.” Rev. of Ragtime, by E. L. Doctorow. The New York Review of Books 7 August 1975: 21-2. Print.
Sokolov, Raymond. “In Book World.” The Washington Post 13 July 1975: 1. Print.
Sheppard, R. Z. “The Music of Time.” Rev. of Ragtime, by E. L. Doctorow. Time 14 July 1975: 64. Print.
Chen, Xiaofei & Cheng Liang. “Literature and Politics in E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime—from the Perspective of New Historicism.” Journal of Language and Literature Studies. 5 (2009): 28. Print.
Xian, Yujing. “Women of the ‘Developing Age’—Analysis of Female Social Status in Ragtime.” Resources of Literature and Education. 22.654 (2014): 14. Print.