Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Ragtime

Go To

"In 1902 father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York, and it seemed, for some years thereafter, that all the family's days would be warm and fair."
— "Prologue: Ragtime" (from The Musical)

Ragtime is a 1975 historical fiction novel by E. L. Doctorow. It takes place in and around New York City between 1900 and 1917, and follows three fictional American families whose lives intersect with those of various major historical figures from the time, such as Evelyn Nesbit, Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan. The three families are: an upper-class WASP family from New Rochelle, consisting of a grandfather, a father, a mother, their son, and the mother's younger brother; a talented young black pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr., his girlfriend Sarah, and their son; and a Jewish Eastern European immigrant and his young daughter. It is written with a ridiculous amount of detail, approaching JRR Tolkien levels.

In 1981 it was adapted into a film version, written by Michael Weller and Bo Goldman and directed by Miloš Forman. The film, which featured Howard E. Rollins Jr., Mandy Patinkin, and James Cagney (among others), was nominated for eight Academy Awards.


It was further adapted into a musical with a book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty. The original cast included Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra McDonald and Marin Mazzie. It was nominated for twelve Tony awards, and won four: Best Featured Actress (McDonald), Original Score, Book, and Orchestrations. A revival of the musical opened on Broadway on November 15, 2009 after transferring from a successful regional production located in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. It closed January 15, 2010.


Includes examples of:

  • All Musicals Are Adaptations
  • Anyone Can Die: Sarah, Coalhouse, Father, and Grandfather. Also Younger Brother in the novel.
    • Although Father and Grandfather's deaths are only mentioned in the epilogue.
  • Ax-Crazy: Coalhouse after Sarah's death
  • Big "NO!": Coalhouse, once again after Sarah's death. It works.
    • Father gets to have one as well at the end of the play when Coalhouse steps outside the library with his hands up, only to be gunned down.
  • Big Applesauce: The majority of the plot takes place in New York and the surrounding area.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Or Quadralingual. "A Shtetl is Amerike" has three separate parts, being sung at the same time. The languages are Yiddish, Italian, and Creole.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Coalhouse, Sarah, and Father are all dead, but the rest of cast is (generally) happy!
  • Bookends: The prologue/epilogue
  • Crowd Song: "'Til we Reach That Day", "Prologue"
  • Dark Reprise: "Prologue:Ragtime", "Wheels of a Dream", though it then gets a light reprise also, and "Your Daddy's Son", though the original was already dark, the reprise is much darker.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: Younger Brother, while watching Evelyn getting massaged naked by Emma Goldman
  • Death by Adaptation: Tateh's wife is dead before the musical starts.
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: Younger Brother, until "The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square." Then he goes kind of crazy with the newfound purpose.
  • Double-Meaning Title
  • Epic Rocking: "Till We Reach That Day", "New Music", "Journey On", "Make Them Hear You", the reprise of "Wheels of a Dream" in the epilogue.
  • Final Love Duet: subverted, "Sarah Brown Eyes" is a flashback
  • Heroic BSoD / BSoD Song: "Coalhouse's Soliloquy"
  • Historical-Domain Character
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: J.P. Morgan
  • In the Past, Everyone Will Be Famous
  • Inspiration Nod: Coalhouse's name is a Shout-Out to Michael Kohlhaas.
  • "I Want" Song: "Goodbye My Love", "Journey On" and "What Kind of Woman", in sequence.
  • Meaningful Funeral: Sarah's
  • Mood Whiplash: "Sucess" going right into "His Name Was Coalhouse Walker"? "Wheels of a Dream" to Tateh working his fingers to bloody stumps at the loom? Yeah, the play was full of this.
    • "Atlantic City" and the associated songs and "What a Game" in the rather grim second act.
  • Motive Decay: Coalhouse goes from seeking reparations for his car to terrorizing the city of New York as revenge for Sarah's death.
    • Lampshaded in the narration, where Booker T. Washington explains that Coalhouse choosing a target so wholly unconnected with his stated grievances was regarded as proof of his insanity.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Sarah's song "Your Daddy's Son".
  • Ms. Fanservice: in-universe: Evelyn Nesbit
  • Narrator: At different times in The Musical everyone behaves as if they were a third-person narrator.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Averted; the book features numerous public figures from the 1920s and is not shy about putting them in compromising positions.
  • No Name Given: Father, Mother, (Mother's) Younger Brother, Grandfather, Tateh (which is just the Yiddish word for 'father'), the Little Girl.
  • Not So Different: Coalhouse and Younger Brother ("He Wanted to Say")
  • Offing the Offspring: Sarah attempts to kill her baby by burying it after Coalhouse abandoned her.
  • Overly Narrow Superlative: "And although the newspapers called the shooting the Crime of the Century, Goldman knew it was only 1906...and there were ninety-four years to go!"
  • Scary Black Man: Quite literally, as the Coalhouses are black terrorists.
  • Scenery Porn: The book is ridiculously detailed.
  • Shoot Him! He Has a... Wallet: Sarah dies this way
  • Sidekick Song: "What a Game", "Crime of the Century"; in a semi-subversion "Atlantic City"
  • Stalker with a Crush: Younger Brother for Evelyn Nesbit
  • Stalking Is Love: Evelyn and Younger Brother become a couple after she discovers he's been stalking her.
  • Stepford Smiler: Mother is implied to have been this, but we only see her as she grows more and more independent and farther and farther away from Father.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: From Younger Brother to Father: "You are a complacent man with no thought of history! You have traveled everywhere and learned nothing! I despise you."
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: The epilogue of The Musical
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: There are three separate plotlines following the three families. They cross over and eventually become one towards the end.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Since Fire Chief Will Conklin is the closest thing to a villain in the show, he breaks down first in "Coalhouse Demands" and even more in "Look What You've Done."
  • Waif Prophet: Male variation, with the little boy who sees World War I coming, and keeps trying to tell people Harry Houndini that he needs to save Franz Ferdinand.
    "Warn the duke!"
  • Wham Episode: Sarah's death is the first of many in the last 15 chapters of the book.
  • Wham Line: During "He Wanted To Say" in the musical:
    Emma Goldman: But all he said was...
    Mother's Younger Brother: I know how to blow things up!
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Booker T. Washington to Coalhouse in "Look What You've Done."
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Younger Brother during the first half of book.
  • Yiddish as a Second Language: Makes sense, considering Tateh's Jewish.


Example of: