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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