From “the Other” towards “the Subject” —A Study of Evelyn Nesbit in Ragtime
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.
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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.
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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.
Evelyn and Mother: Victims of the Social Construction of Gender
In the late 1960’s and 1970’s, the social construction of gender became a heated topic of debate amongst feminist theorists. The argument that the patriarchal values embedded in American culture (rather than purely biological factors), were responsible for constructing masculine and feminine roles in society, met intense criticism. Prior to the introduction of gender construction theory, many of the theories regarding gender were based on the idea that biological factors alone determined the roles of men and women in society. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, however, a rift formed between those whose thoughts about gender roles evolved and those who stuck to the belief that the traditional roles of men and women should remain intact.In Ragtime, a novel written in the mid-nineteen seventies amidst this controversial debate, E.L. Doctorow uses the revolutionary theory of Gender Construction to explore masculinity and femininity in the early nineteen hundreds and it’s affect on both the fictional and non-fictional characters of his work. Perhaps not the main subject of the novel, his characterization of the females (specifically Evelyn Nesbit and Mother) as victims of their femininity, is integral to the plot.
The comparison and contrast of Evelyn and Mother and their feelings toward the importance of their appearance, their sexuality, and their relationships with men reveals how the patriarchal construction of gender in early twentieth century American culture restricted women to purely “feminine” roles which oppressed their ability to become independent members of society. From a young age, Evelyn’s mother taught her that she could use her beauty as a tool to propel herself into upper-class society. Because of her mother’s insistence that she use her beauty to secure herself an advantageous marriage, Evelyn agrees to take a vacation with Harry K. Thaw, one of the wealthiest men in the country, and finds herself semi-trapped in an abusive situation. Only when she realizes that her beauty may be sacrificed if Harry continues physically abusing her, does she decide that “their relationship had gone beyond its tacit understanding” (Doctorow 23) and she demands to be sent home. Evelyn values her appearance only because she sees that her beauty is a trait that is highly admired by the men in her life. The reaction she receives from her audience of admirers determines her self-worth and since she can control her appearance, she feels like she has power over that part of her life. Yet, she soon realizes that her beauty, like her power over men, only lasts temporarily. For the first time, she begins to doubt whether she can continue to rely on her beauty when, “she looks [looked] in the mirror and sees [saw] the unmistakable lineaments of womanhood coming in to her girlish face”(Doctorow 88). Evelyn has never tried to accomplish anything on her own without using her looks to her advantage. She has no idea what will happen to her once her beauty begins to fade and men are no longer willing to pay for her to live like an aristocrat. Her beauty becomes a disadvantage to her because she realizes that that the control she thought she had over her life never existed. She kept up her appearance solely for the pleasure of the men in her life and it dawns on her, when she sees the evidence of aging on her face that her life was in the control of those men all along.
In her article about the social factors that lead women to be come dependent on men, Carol Gilligan states her beliefs about how women are raised to believe that “intimacy goes along with identity” and that “the female comes to know herself as she is known, through her relationships with others” (12). In Evelyn’s case, she has become accustomed to having a flock of admirers obsessed with her beauty. She defines herself through their treatment of her as a defenseless, simple, and delicate object because she has been raised to believe that it is their opinion of her and not her own, that matters. In this way, Evelyn creates her own femininity through the patriarchal perspective of the men in her life.
Although Mother and Evelyn Nesbit appear to come from entirely different backgrounds, their reliance on their appearance to secure their prospective futures is similar in that they each use Western notions of femininity to attract possible spouses. Mother, for example, is described as having “golden hair which she wore up in the style of the day”(Doctorow 68). Although Mother is already married when this description of her is presented within the text, Doctorow makes it clear that she is still aware of current social views about the roles of women in the household because despite the security in already having a family and a home, Mother continues to follow current trends. When Father goes on his long trip, Mother is finally able to break slightly free from the social restrictions that control her when her husband is present and she decides not to “take time to put her hair up but let it hang to her shoulders all day”(Doctorow 234). Mother’s femininity is a show that she puts on for her husband and for the public so that they will believe that she is a proper woman. She wears her hair up tightly on her head when she thinks anyone might be looking because wearing it down on her shoulders suggests a certain boldness that women like Mother were not supposed to have. Mother has been “trained” to be the embodiment of the perfect wife through the strict social restrictions that have shaped her femininity. Nevertheless, she finds that her temporary escape from those restrictions (letting her hair down) reveals to her a beauty about herself that has nothing to do with her feminine appearance. In this way, “Mother seems to become, simply through practical experience, a working example of the abstract doctrines of women’s liberation”(Morris 91). Although Mother never makes any radical moves to free herself from the husband she never loved, she does seem to make changes in her life that make her happier and she is able to reject some of her restrictive feminine roles so that she can search for ways to become more independent.
Although Evelyn takes immense amounts of pleasure in the attention she receives from men, her sexuality, because it is framed entirely by her views of masculinity and femininity, is a part of her that is for the men in her life rather than for herself. During her first sexual experience with Harry K. Thaw, “he pulls [pulled] off her robe throws [threw] her across the bed and applies [applied] a dog whip to her buttocks and the backs of her thighs”(Doctorow 23). Evelyn’s sexuality has been formed by her beliefs about her role as a woman. Because she is believed to be the epitome of femininity, she does not feel like she is allowed to have a sexuality of her own. Like in the case with Harry Thaw, her body is a sexual tool for male pleasure rather than for her own. Even when she finally lets go of the stigmas that repress her sexual desires and allows herself to feel sexual pleasure, her exploration of her own sexuality is interrupted by Younger Brother as he, “falls [fell] into the room… and spurts of jism trace [traced] the air like bullets and finally settle [settled] over Evelyn”(Doctorow 63-64). Once again, Evelyn is forced to come to the realization that men’s sexuality’s constantly overshadows her own. While she is able to take one step forward toward finding what may lead to her own pleasure, she is blocked by the invisible social restrictions that keep her from viewing herself as an individual rather than an object. In an interview with Doctorow, he discusses his preoccupation with sex as power that reveals why Evelyn is unable to truly realize her own sexuality. Doctorow states that he is “using sex as a metaphor for political relations, or helplessly annotating what passes for sex in a society that suffers paternalistic distortions”(121). Because Evelyn will never be able to overcome the social forces that appoint her as a second class citizen, her notions about her own sexuality will similarly remain unaffected. Evelyn is too entrenched in the patriarchal social structure and it’s “paternalistic distortions” to even realize that her sexuality is affected by it.
Similarly to Evelyn, mother represses her sexual desires and allows her husband to use her body solely for his own pleasure. Before Father leaves on a long trip, she allows him to have sex with her but she “shuts [shut] her eyes and holds [held] her hands over her ears”(Doctorow 12) until he finishes. For Mother(and Evelyn), sex is a duty to be performed for their husbands; not an act to be enjoyed by both parties. “Feminine” women such as Mother are not supposed to have sexual desires of their own because sexual urges are seen as masculine behavior. Yet, as the times change in front of Mother’s eyes, she begins to long for independence from her restrictive, traditional marriage and regards sex with her husband as an “intrusion, not as in the old days but with some awareness of her own, some sort of expectation on the skin that pounds [pounded] from her”(Doctorow 249). After Father leaves on his long journey, Mother seeks to find herself as an individual rather than as a wife and mother. Unlike Evelyn, she is able to look at her life differently during her husband’s absence because she takes the time to read and learn about the social movements taking place in the United States at the time.
While Evelyn simply replaces her husband with new men that will take care of her, Mother realizes that she should not have to define herself in relation to her husband and somewhat distances herself from Father when he returns. While Evelyn feels powerful in her awareness of the affect that her beauty has on men, her marriage to Harry K. Thaw ruins her illusion of control over him and over her own life. When Harry commits murder and is put on trial, Evelyn realizes that her livelihood depends entirely on her ability to characterize herself and her husband as perfect examples of feminine and masculine nature. When she testifies on his behalf she portrays “Harry as the victim of an irrepressible urge to find honor for himself and his young bride. She performs [performed] flawlessly”(Doctorow 85). Evelyn takes the stand prepared to present herself as the epitome of womanhood. As the victim of rape perpetrated by the murdered man, Evelyn pretends that her potential to become a proper woman was destroyed. The only way to regain her honor, in her husbands eyes, was to kill the man who “ruined” his wife. When presented with this story, the jury is apt to agree that Harry was simply fulfilling his masculine role in protecting his young bride and gender is effectively used by the defendant as the reason behind his “uncontrollable” act of manliness. Although Evelyn seems to be aware that the idea that Harry couldn’t control himself because of his masculine character traits is ridiculous, she continues to see herself as a victim of her femininity and does not attempt to step outside of her gender role.
After Harry, she continues to depend on men and simply turns her attentions to Mother’s younger brother because, “It was a characteristic of Evelyn that she could not resist someone who was so strongly attracted to her”(Doctorow 83). Evelyn does not believe that she is capable of living her life without having someone who will take care of her. She was raised to believe that as a woman, she is too fragile and mentally incompetent to accomplish anything other than becoming a beautiful wife. After her affair with Younger Brother, Evelyn disappears from the story as quickly as she was introduced. In his article about Doctorow’s use of gender in his works, Marshall Gentry states, “Several of Doctorow’s major female characters nearly disappear by the end of their novels, as if they must be hidden from view so that their flaws too, may be hidden”(514). Unlike Mother, Evelyn never seems to make any progress towards becoming an individual and this is her major character flaw. By ending Evelyn’s story in the middle of the novel, Doctorow hides Evelyn’s flaws by never mentioning (except for a quick sentence at the end) that Evelyn never became the independent woman that Mother did and was unable to find happiness for herself.
In contrast to Evelyn, Mother married a man with a similar background to her own. Mother’s belief in the inferiority of her sex when she first married father, however, mirrors Evelyn’s beliefs and leads them both to the conclusion that they must remain dependent on men. After years of being married to Father, Mother realizes that the reality of her marriage is not the romantic fairy tale she once believed it would be. While looking at her husband she sees that, “whereas once, in his courtship, Father might have embodied the infinite possibilities of loving, he had aged and gone dull”(Doctorow 250). Mother knows that while she is dependent on Father for her livelihood, she made the wrong decision when she married him for social rather than romantic reasons. Although she is unhappy in her marriage, “Mother does not, as more radical women might, attempt to live independently, but she is receptive to social changes that give her access to a more rewarding life”(Tokarczyk 4). Mother is unwilling to break up her family so that she can be independent because she does not see the sense in doing so. Father provided for her in every way that he knew how and Mother knows that it is not his fault that he does not understand her now that she has changed.
Like mother once was, Father was raised to believe that he should exert his masculinity in his marriage and he is entirely unaware of how he could participate in a relationship that was not defined by it’s masculine and feminine characteristics. When Father dies, however, Mother is free to choose a man who she feels is her equal rather than her superior and she finds that man and “accepts [accepted] him without hesitation. She loved to be with him. They both relished in the traits of character in the other”(Doctorow 319). Instead of distinguishing gender roles in their relationship, mother and her new husband simply admire each other’s traits without having to name them as either masculine or feminine. Mother has found someone who loves her for who she is now, rather than “proper” woman she used to try to be, and unlike Evelyn, she does not disappear from the novel but thrives at the end in her successful marriage and the start of her new life.
Both Evelyn and Mother began their lives under the impression that their feminine natures would determine the outcome of the rest of their lives, yet only Mother is able to finally escape this notion and find her identity outside of her femininity. Evelyn is exposed to new ways of living and thinking but she is unwilling or unable to change her habits enough so that she can live a life that does not revolve around the men in her life. The contrast between these two women becomes evident when their beliefs about the importance of their appearance, their sexuality, and their relationships with men are analyzed. In all of these areas of their lives, Evelyn never changes in any of her beliefs while mother evolves completely. Although neither character is ever completely freed from the social restrictions that oppressed the women of their time, it is with the acknowledgement of the possibility of social change that mother finds happiness in her life.
Women’s Roles in Ragtime
In the early 1900s, the time period in which the novel Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow takes place, expectations were that women should be submissive, obedient, and dependent upon their husbands. Women were considered weak, fragile, and in need of protection from men. In Ragtime, anarchist Emma Goldman challenges the perceived role of women in their chauvinistic society; impacting the lives of characters such as Evelyn Nesbit, a symbol of sex and desire, and Mother, a housewife starting to find her own identity as an independent woman.
Emma Goldman is first introduced to the reader when Evelyn attends Goldman’s meeting, where she expresses her disbelief in the institution of marriage. Goldman compares marriage to slavery, saying that it is oppressing to women. She disputes the idea of women only being useful for sex and homemaking. “The truth is, Goldman went on quickly, women may not vote, they may not love whom they want, they may not develop their minds and their spirits, they may not commit their lives to the spiritual adventure of life, comrades they may not! And why? Is our genius only in our wombs? Can we not write books and create learned scholarship and perform music and provide philosophical models for the betterment of mankind? Must our fate always be physical?” (P54) The scene of Goldman’s meeting is the beginning of turning point for women in the novel, because after her bold ideas about equality are presented to the reader, we begin to see how Mother changes drastically and how Evelyn comes to realize her own self worth.
Evelyn Nesbit is seemingly the opposite of Emma Goldman and her beliefs. She is the “first sex goddess”, a “celebrated beauty” (P4) and represents the sexualized female in America. Younger Brother, for example, practically worships her for her beauty, even though he has never met her. “Mother’s younger brother was in love with Evelyn Nesbit … He thought about her all the time. He was desperate to have her.” (P5) Evelyn uses her beauty to become a prominent figure in society. “There sits among us this evening one of the most brilliant women in America, a woman forced by this capitalist society to find her genius in the exercise of her sexual attraction.” (P54) Evelyn was also dependent upon the men in her life. After being raped at age 15 by Stanford White, she continued to play the role of his mistress. Evelyn’s marriage to Harry K. Thaw was more like prostitution, as Emma Goldman points out to her after her meeting. “After all, Goldman went on, you’re nothing more than a clever prostitute. You accepted the conditions in which you found yourself and you triumphed. But what kind of a victory has it been? The victory of the prostitute. And what have your consolations been? The consolations of cynicism, of scorn, of contempt for the human male.” (P56) Another example of her marriage being like prostitution was Evelyn’s visiting of her husband in jail, where he uses her for sex and then gives her money. She is also willing to lie during the trial of her husband, because they are paying her to do so. “She had agreed to testify in his behalf for the sum of two hundred thousand dollars. And her price for a divorce was going to be even higher.” (P26) Evelyn is famous for her beauty, loved by men, cannot detach herself from her husband, and proves Emma’s point that marriage can be like slavery. “Because like all whores you value propriety. You are a creature of capitalism, the ethics of which are so totally corrupt and hypocritical that your beauty is no more than the beauty of gold, which is to say false and cold and useless.” (P57) It is at this moment in the plot that Evelyn becomes aware of her own rights and capabilities, realizing the power to change her life for the better is in her own hands and not anyone elses.
In the middle of the spectrum, between Emma Goldman and Evelyn Nesbit, lies Mother, the typical Victorian housewife. In the beginning of Ragtime, the readers get the sense that her relationship with Father is shaky. “The marriage seemed to flourish on Father’s extended absences.” (P11) It seems that their marriage is held together by sex because it makes Father feel dominant and in control of everything, while Mother remains submissive. “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. She started. She thought: Yet I know these are the happy years. And ahead of us are only great disasters.” (P12) However, Mother undergoes a drastic change of lifestyle when Father leaves for an extended period of time. While he is away, she is given the task of running Father’s business, and realizes that she can do more than just assume the role of the homemaker. “Mother could now speak crisply of such matters as unit cost, inventory and advertising. She had assumed executive responsibility.” P112 When Father returns, he notices his wife’s new independence. He feels like his presence is no longer needed in the home, as everything had been running smoothly without him. “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.” (P110) Once again, Goldman is tied into this newfound independence, when E.L. Doctorow mentions that Mother had been reading Goldman’s book. “He found also a pamphlet on the subject of family limitation and the author was Emma Goldman, the anarchist revolutionary.” (P112) Goldman’s ideas of the free woman had shifted Mother and Father’s roles in the family, where Father was once the most superior power. Her lifestyle alteration leads to her own sexual awareness and the understanding that she no longer loves Father, a feeling that was most likely there the whole time but never recognized until now. “…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 any feeling of love.” (P226) Although Goldman does not directly affect Mother like she does so with Evelyn, Mother’s newfound independence is an example of Goldman’s beliefs.
Emma Goldman impacted the two other major female characters greatly. Goldman directly affects Evelyn, the representation of everything she speaks against. Evelyn is a symbol of sex in America, and represents the male infatuation with beauty. From Goldman, she grasps the negative connotation of her ignorant lifestyle. Goldman’s movement for women as a whole is a part of Mother’s change, as the readers know that Mother had been reading Goldman’s books. Mother is an example of what Goldman had been trying to prove all along, that women can become independent, that they can do things greater than just being a wife, and that they free themselves from their oppressive marriage. Goldman’s beliefs are a crucial factor of Ragtime’s plot, because they cause Evelyn, Mother, and the society as a whole to change.