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