Evelyn Nesbit: The 1900s Ragdoll

Femininity, a word that describes being a woman based on certain attributes, behaviors, and roles, is partially a social construct. In his historical novel ​Ragtime, ​E.L. Doctorow introduces various female characters, such as Evelyn Nesbit, the “it-girl” of the early 1900s, to expose the image of women fabricated by a patriarchal society. Growing up poor with only her mother, Evelyn does not have much, but as soon as her looks begin to develop, her life starts to resemble the typical rags to riches story. During this evolution, Evelyn becomes a prime example of the negative impact of 1900s American culture on women because she becomes a product of society, like a ​Barbie Doll​, a figure easily manipulated by the masses. Her body becomes the goal and expectation of women and men across the country: luscious curves with a tiny waist. By showing her turbulent life, from her various abusive relationships with prominent men to her dabbling in charity work, E.L. Doctorow reveals how Evelyn struggles to gain control of her body, mind, and relationships; thus, he illustrates that without this authority over oneself, individuals cannot live happy, fulfilled lives.

Evelyn captivates New York society by her alluring appearance; however, individuals consider this enough validation to sexualize her, leading her to be more susceptible to objectification. Within the city, it becomes a fact to men that “Evelyn’s face on the front page of a newspaper sold out the edition”(84), leading all citizens to perceive Evelyn as solely a tool to Veth 2 sell more products and commencing the widespread use of women as “eye candy” rather than fellow humans (Ferrández San Miguel, “The Collusion of Feminist and Postmodernist Impulses”). This view of women evolves to a more toxic level by the singular template all men envision women to look like. Wanting to achieve the same looks as Evelyn, “the ​first sex goddess in American history” (84), many women torture themselves with corsets; however, Evelyn, who has the culture so deeply woven into her, has “welts around [her] waist” and “red lines running around the tops of her thighs”(62), proving to an extent how pernicious the practice is because in reality “women kill themselves”(62) from it. Viewing the corset as not only a physical contract but a cognitive one, Dianne Osland from ​“Trusting the Teller: Metaphor in Fiction, and the Case of ​Ragtime​” states, “To talk of oppression in terms of an inability to breathe is a common metaphor, one of a cluster of expressions (such as “smother,” “stifle,” and “choke”) that, in the absence of literal asphyxiation, carry the physical sensation of suffocation across to mental or emotional experience.” Thus, by acknowledging the perpetuated oppression and objectification women deal with, especially Evelyn, Doctorow demonstrates their sadly restricted lives.

However, Evelyn chooses to continue to live up to this image of a sex goddess because she no longer controls her body, New York’s society does. Being hailed “the celebrated beauty”(5), Evelyn captivates the attention of anyone she comes across, even leading one man to state that “there [is] nothing in life worth having, worth wanting, but the embrace of her thin arms”(6). Because reporters continuously follow her, Evelyn’s image plagues the papers of New York; however, the headlines do not always capture her in the best light, leading her to sometimes embody the gossip they produce. This introduction of social media augmented the Veth 3 belief that women are mere images of desire and nothing more (Tokarczyk, “The American Dream, Insiders and Outsiders: ​Ragtime​’). Evelyn begins to expect what the media assumes of her, chastising herself when upset because “crying makes [her] ugly”(56). Although it may not seem fair that she lives a life of luxury just because of her looks, Evelyn also faces hardships due to this dual natured “gift,” such as her name being synonymous to whore or prostitute. As well, she is not able to roam the city freely without the judgments of others, demonstrating the lack of control she has on her body because the opinions of others dictate how she sees herself and acts. Even though society is very cruel, Evelyn is one of her own biggest critics because she strives to be more independent, but due to her history, she struggles to find this self-sufficiency. Wanting to escape her marriage with Harry K. Thaw, a railroad mogul, Evelyn dedicates her time perfecting her testimony so that he can plea not guilty to the murder of her former lover/rapist Stanford White. As a reward for “[performing] flawlessly”(85), she would receive a divorce settlement, a transaction that could support her new solo life. ​Add more quotes and critics.

Taking some more control over the reins of her life, Evelyn wanders the streets of the Lower East Side tenements, an action not typically seen among rich celebrities. There, she meets Tateh, a Jewish immigrant raising his young daughter Little Girl by himself. Evelyn regularly spends time with Tateh and Little Girl because of her “desire to become one of them”(49) and their unawareness of her true identity. By helping them, for once in her life, Evelyn finally feels as if she is more than just a pretty face as she recognizes her ability to positively impact the lives of others. Furthermore, she is more relatable than the media portrays her to be. By consciously choosing to assist others she has no prior relations to, Evelyn acquires power over her mind that was previously drowned out by her numerous critics.

Add clearer transition​ By describing Evelyn’s previous romantic relationships, Doctorow divulges the inner and exterior turmoils that accompany her with every partner she has. Having endured abusive relationships with Stanford White, a renowned architect, and her husband Harry K. Thaw, who once beat her so hard that “red welts disfigured [her] flesh”(23), Evelyn does not have the best taste in men; she places their net worth above their hideous personalities. Because she so frequently chooses men who do not treat her right, Evelyn craves “someone who would treat her badly and whom she could treat badly”(89). ​Add critic ​By craving unhealthy relationships, Evelyn reveals that she has been impacted by former partners, and they have shaped her views on how relationships should be Therefore, she has no authority over her relationships because of her inability to know she deserves better. In society there are certain images of women that are celebrated, while others receive criticism; models are praised and idolized for having the perfect face and body, leading many others to crave their appearances. However, this​ ​prevents individuals from truly accepting and loving their own bodies. Social media acts as a big factor in this lack of control of oneself, perpetuating the ideas that individuals have to look and act a certain way. Although there was less social media in ​Ragtime​, as it was the beginning of massive media consumption, Evelyn Nesbit continued to be a product of society; thus, Doctorow demonstrates​ ​the power society has on a woman’s self image, which impacts how she views and carries herself.

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