In the novel Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow, change plays a fundamental role. Change, in its many forms, is the major theme of the book's many plots. Coalhouse Walker and the plight of his automobile represent a major deviation and change in society. His character itself does not radically change, but rather the character itself represents a change. He is the embodiment of black militancy of the twentieth century. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, while also an actual historical occurrence, serves to illustrate further changes in man and his ideas and ideals. Father's fireworks and bunting factory also undergoes a drastic change, due to changes in thoughts and feelings of patriotism.
The persona of Coalhouse Walker is not so much meant to show the development and change of an individual during the early part of this century, but rather that of a people. Coalhouse is the embodiment of black militance. He, and the men with whom he conducts his raids are representative of the feelings of a large group of people. They are the forebearers of what will turn into the civil rights movement, especially groups such as the Black Panthers. Previously, blacks had taken the less favored jobs, and been poorly paid. In most cases and cities they lived in slums, away from the bourgeoisie white sector. Their only interaction with the middle and upper classes was normally while serving them. During the early 1900's however, African-Americans began to work for more equality, and get it. They earned more money, and were climbing the social ladder, a major accomplishment. In the face of riots and other resistance to their achievements, groups formed. Civil rights groups formed to organise efforts, and militant organizations formed to protect blacks. Coalhouse represented the militantization of what was a previously fairly docile group of people.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand represented outdated dogma. He was next in line to be the head of an outdated government that governed poorly, and needed to change. He was falling out of public favor. The solution to this problem of having an outdated government was simple. The old, cumbersome parts were removed. War is the obvious result of, or cause, of radical change. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand was the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back.” The changes he represented had come to a head, and tensions turned into war. Up until that point, the world had changed very much, and continued to change after the war. However, the changes before the first Great War were like coiling a spring up upon itself, and it eventually snapped. Also, change is not easy, nor was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. The first attempt to kill him failed, leaving him and his wife, Sophie, covered in chalk. The second attempt proved more successful, although it was purely luck that their car drove past Princip after making a wrong turn.
Father’s firework and bunting factory undergoes drastic changes, while sticking to its central theme of providing the various accoutrements of patriotism. Fireworks and bunting, for parades and other patriotic gatherings and home décor, were the traditional symbols of patriotism. As the America shown in the book progresses, thinking in America changes. Fireworks on the Fourth of July are no longer meant merely to entertain. Now, the factories that produce those explosives are producing a far deadlier arsenal. The First World War is looming, and Father’s factory, using Mother’s Younger Brother’s plans, will produce various modern-day symbols of patriotism. Things such as grenades, rocket launchers, and land mines are the new-age representations of the love Americans feel for their country. Once, being patriotic meant loving America, and being willing to die for it. In the book things are changing however, and patriotism is taking on new meanings. Blowing the enemy to smithereens is now patriotic. As a Saturday morning cartoon once put it, “G.I. Joe is the all-American hero.”
Coalhouse Walker himself is living testament to the arrival of black militancy in the twentieth century. He embodies the spirit and beliefs of the civil rights movement, although at a somewhat extremist bent. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand represented a change in power and thinking, from the old regime to a new government. His passing represented the passing of the old and the coming of the new. Father’s fireworks and bunting factory is a source of patriotism, and as the feelings of what patriotism is change, so do the things the factory produces. It goes from making fireworks and bunting and accessories for holidays and parades to making rockets and grenades and explosives for war. Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow illustrates a great many changes in the thought of man, and the way he feels about things. It puts one of the most dynamic and shifting periods of history into perspective, showing the changes in society for what they are, progress.