In literature, one character can impact the entire story and all of its characters. Such is the case with Coalhouse Walker Jr. in E.L. Doctrow’s Ragtime. His characterization provides insight into race relations in turn-of-the-century America. Many characters react strongly to his mannerisms, as they believe his social standing does not allow for such behavior. Because Coalhouse conducts himself with a sense of pride unusual of African Americans at this point in history, his view of how he should be treated repeatedly come into direct contradiction with others’. He, then, represents all African Americans who oppose the expectations many whites have of them. Coalhouse Walker is the most essential character in Ragtime, because he deeply affects the plot and all other characters.
Coalhouse most deeply influences Mother’s Younger Brother, a young fundamentalist with little objective in life. However, when he joins Coalhouse’s group of revolutionaries, he feels as if his life contains purpose. This concept creates a “dramatic, exalted self-awareness”. Younger Brother was, at last, part of a community. However, Mother’s Younger Brother ultimately meets his death while pledged in such an idealistic battle. He begins a new way of life, based on Coalhouse’s ideals, and encounters a rebirth of his soul. However, this new way of life conflicts with that of his parents; thus, he finds it necessary to depart from them and live his life independently. This is all under Coalhouse’s influence and guidance.
Coalhouse Walker has a grave impact on Father and Mother. Initially, Mother is shocked that he does not act like other African-Americans, but more like a Caucasian gentleman. Father, stumped by Coalhouse’s proud behavior, concludes that he is not conscious of his racial inferiority. Mother’s feelings towards her husband begin to deteriorate after this conversation. At a later point, when Coalhouse takes over the firehouse, Father, as usual putting business before family, rushes off to New York City, thus, leaving Mother to fall in love with Tateh.
In Ragtime, by E.L. Doctrow, Coalhouse Walker Jr. is the most important character, as he ties together the treads of the novel. It is through Coalhouse that the three different societal groups, the immigrants, the African-Americans, and the WASPs mingle and interact. Coalhouse also undergoes a rebirth, like Younger Brother, although his is much more dramatic and swift than Tateh’s. Coalhouse goes from being a fine upstanding gentleman to a quintessential angry black male as he resorts to violence to resolve his feelings toward society.