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Evelyn Nesbit: From Being Object to Becoming a Subject

From “the Other” towards “the Subject”

—A Study of Evelyn Nesbit in Ragtime


The goal of this paper is two-fold. I will analyze Evelyn Nesbit’s personalities presented in Ragtime as a recreated character that is not lifted straight from the pages of the history books. With the notion “the Other” coined by French feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir in her book about existentialism, the Second Sex, I would mainly concentrate on analyzing Nesbit’s struggle and attempt to prove she sooner or later alterations her position from an “Object” to a “Subject”.

Keywords: Ragtime, Feminist existentialism, Evelyn Nesbit

I. Introduction

Ragtime is a historical fiction written by E. L. Doctorow, and it is featured in the fiction and historical components combined writing style. With the background set in the period from 1902 to 1912 in New York City and surrounding locations, it presents readers with a decade’s American social costume on the eve of Planet War I. The novel contains many historical events and celebrities although some of them have been nevertheless effectively-recognized nowadays, such as the economic magnate J. P. Morgan the “Motor King” Henry Ford and “The Trail of the Century.” Doctorow added 3 fictional families as the clue as effectively as the protagonists in the real historical background to represent 3 primary sorts of citizens and their lives. From the distinct perspectives, “Doctorow shows how politics, economics, and social class deeply impinge on person lives by applying the theories of New Historicism to his novel” (Chen 28). Completed and published in 1975, Ragtime narrates some divided but connected stories of immigrants, WASPs, and African Americans. There are conflicts as well as connections among the three groups, but they also reveal the intensification of American social difficulties with economic improvement. Doctorow writes the novel at a time of the second-wave of feminism, so Ragtime is inevitably influenced by these thoughts. He adapts two historical female characters, Evelyn Nesbit and Emma Goldman to represent the development of the initial-wave. As a feminist, even though Emma’s financial contribution toward the United States is naturally significantly less than that of Ford or Morgan, her effort to promote female social status is a visible and important milestone of the feminism movement. At the same time, Evelyn Nesbit’s modify with the assist of Emma is an epitome of thousands females’ awakening in the initial-wave.

In Ragtime, Evelyn Nesbit is a low-born woman but fights her way out to gain herself fame and fortune. So even though the false testimony conflicts to her conscience, she nonetheless tends to make it in order to get Harry K. Thaw’s income and make herself a victim in front of the public. But later, she requires care of the little girl, “took up the lease and paid the landlord for the pitiful furnishings” (94) where the tiny girl and Tateh utilized to stay. Following Nesbit’s involvement with Tateh and the little girl, her inner space begins to change and becomes far more mature and hospitable to the functioning class. With her staying with Goldman, Nesbit gradually realizes her life as shallow, her testimony as stupid and her marriage to Harry K. Thaw as gilded prostitution. So she begins to engage herself in politic movements and as the finish of the novel goes, “lost her appears and faded into obscurity” (369).

Because it is published in 1975, analyzing papers on Ragtime have primarily focused on these aspects: Doctorow’s language, the reconstruction of historical characters, postmodernism, neorealism, and nostalgia. Ragtime is a genre of music featured of swift and passionate beats. And when this style is adapted in composing, the context would be more energetic. So Clemons writes in his review of Ragtime that “Doctorow has found a fresh way to orchestrate the themes of American innocence, power, and inchoate ambition—with their antiphonies of complacency, disorder, and disillusion” (76). “Doctorow is praised that his sense of the telling detail is excellent, and even if that had been his only triumph—it is not—this novel would still be anything to treasure” (Hart 892). As the creator of a number of prestigious operates such as The Book of Daniel and the Loon Lake, Doctorow is known for his subtle but profound writing expertise in recreating historical celebrities and producing them an organic component of the entire book. Carl Rollyson has written in the book Essential Survey of Lengthy Fiction that “In Ragtime, Doctorow goes even additional in suggesting that considerably of American history has been turned into a myth. In this novel, historical figures have the exact same status as fictional creations” (1291). The quite title of the novel, Ragtime, represents not only a popular music among that time but also the gradually heated social conflicts and fast social progress of the United States.

Nonetheless, there is a handful of study paper concerning the female characters in Ragtime. And most of the essays just mention these Nesbit and Goldman characters alternatively of analyzing them with any theory. Li says that “Evelyn left with a ragtime dancer”(115) Maria F. S. Miguel writes in her review that “characterization in Ragtime functions as a tool to expose the oppression, and, at times, violence that girls faced at the turn of the century and which intersects with racial and class discrimination” (103). But these descriptions are as well vague to draw such a outcome without a deep analysis of the personality of Evelyn Nesbit and the social atmosphere exactly where she is in. Though Xian mentions in her work that “Nesbit is not only despised by the upper-class but also criticized by the working class. And the explanation of her miserable life is her unique social status” (14), it is nevertheless a pity for she does not try to argue what Evelyn’s unique social status is and how she has gained such social status.

In a nutshell, the following parts would mainly concentrate on Evelyn Nesbit’s identities and her struggles to adjust her social status according to the notion of “the Other” raised by the French feminist Simone de Beauvoir. Nevertheless, prior to moving on to the detailed analyses, it would be needed to review the essential concepts utilized in this paper.

II. Theoretical Framework

In her book The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir raises a concept named “The Other”, which in her words means that lady is “the privileged Other”, defined as “the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential” (16).

In addition, Simone also specifies “the Other” as a slave and says “any a lot more than slavery is the vocation of the slave” (262), which means that females have to submit to males’ authority due to their lack of violence. This occurs in each primitive and contemporary society due to the fact the patriarchal method is still the foundation of nowadays’ society. And under this social contract developed by males, females have nothing at all to do but accept the social part distributed to her. As a part of feminist existentialism, the theory of “the Other” primarily focuses on the unequal relationship between male and female. Comparing lady to the slave or object of man, Simone reveals that lady really has no or few social status in the patriarchal society. Judith Butler says that “the word is utilized by Beauvoir to imply woman as a construct or an thought, rather than lady as an individual or one of a group. The book suggests that ‘gender’ is an aspect of identity which is ‘gradually acquired’” (35).

To be short, “the Other” clearly positions woman as an auxiliary to the man, implying that lady could only live a great life by marring or belong to a man. This theory would be utilized when analyzing Nesbit’s adjustments in her behaviors and personalities in this paper.

III. Nesbit’s Struggle as an “Other”

As a notorious socialite, Nesbit is disputed by the standard moral standards even though at the exact same time followed by the mass media no matter when and exactly where. On the one particular hand, the mainstream value of the society is criticizing Nesbit for her chasing fame and fortune by providing her body to guys. But on the other hand, Nesbit has become the sort of celebrity with her face printed everywhere. Simone de Beauvoir points out that “weakness is made objective in lady, and she is referred to as inconstant and traitress simply because her body is such as to dedicate her to man in general and not to one man in particular” (181). That is the specific purpose why the public likes and requirements her to be the topic of their dinner conversation but hates her for her brave behavior of getting romantic affairs with many males which challenges and shakes the foundation of the society, or the patriarchal system in other words.

Even though Nesbit “is believed of in residences all more than America as a licentious shameless wanton” (68), nevertheless, she is meanwhile “a creature of their making” (68). There’s no doubt that the word “their” implies the society which forces ladies to be the tool utilized by males whilst accused to be skittish. In Nesbit’s instances, there was no other way for a lady but adhere to the criteria produced by man. She is a stunning woman with a fairly face and excellent stature who meets everyone’s normal of beauty. But the meaning of “beautiful” is defined by male and anybody who wants to satisfy it ought to wear steel-like stays to hold her waist and make the “marks of the stays run vertically like welts around the waist” (69). The welt-like restriction to woman’s body is the public’s stereotype to female, and it is in fact a miserable but inevitable price tag for every female who wants to appreciate an abundant life in that time, or even these days. The welt directly represents the owner-servant relationship in between men and women. The deeper which means of this connection is the dominant power of man more than lady, which could be interpreted as a hierarchy and sex naturally exists to let lady satisfy man’s carnal want. “Woman flatters not only man’s social vanity she is the supply of a a lot more intimate pride. He is delighted with his domination more than her” (Beauvoir 192). From Beauvoir’s viewpoint, Nesbit is in fact an elegant toy of her husband, the upper-class and the patriarchal society. What other folks actually care about is her beauty and no one pays consideration to her feelings or her joys and sorrows. At the exact same time, for man requires woman’s sacrifice and effort for granted, the entire society, even lady herself, acquiesce in the fait accompli with couple of or even no complaints.

So it makes sense that sexual violence occurs in Nesbit and her husband Harry K. Thaw’s first night together, for he treats Nesbit as a tool rather of human in the equal position with him. “Her body is not perceived as the radiation of a subjective personality, but as a thing sunk deeply in its own immanence” (Beauvoir 176). A “thing” absolutely has no human dignity and there is no need to respect but use it as Harry wishes. So “he pulled off her robe, threw her across the bed and applied a dog whip to her buttocks and the backs of her thighs. Her shrieks echoed down the corridors and stone stairwells…” (26) This is far from the finish, but a commence of Nesbit’s nightmare, “shocking red welts disfigured Nesbit’s flesh. She cried and whimpered all night… In the morning Harry returned to her room… with a razor strop… She was bedridden for weeks” (27). There’s no humanity in the description of Harry’s behaviors or he is in fact a beast beneath the layer of human skin. Eisler Riane pinpoints the truth below the surface is “the domestication of girls and the dehumanization of men” (Riane 202). And Harry’s atrocity to Nesbit could also be explained as “the psychosexual armoring that in our time continues to drive guys to ever much more sexual conquests” (Riane 208). According to this explanation, his behavior is not out of defeating enemies, but venting his animal want and constructing a sense of conquest, which is primarily based on Nesbit’s suffering.

Here comes an obvious query: Why does not Nesbit function to achieve herself a greater social status? As a poor woman with no relatives to rely on, Nesbit could only get her personal fortune by means of her efforts, or in other words, a marriage with a rich man. “For woman’s housework henceforth sank into insignificance in comparison with man’s productive labor—the latter was every little thing, the former a trifling auxiliary” (Beauvoir 80) and “it is by way of the patrimony that lady has been most strongly attached to her spouse” (142). What Nesbit could do is incredibly limited since women have a lot reduced social status than men although the public believes that the greatest spot for girls to keep is residence instead of workplace or factory, so her ideal way to uncover herself a Mr. Right is according to her expertise about the upper-class as a socialite. To be more certain, Nesbit’s best option is to attach herself to a rich man to make herself more well-liked. Goldman points out that “Like all whores you worth propriety. You are a creature of capitalism, the ethics of which are so totally corrupt and hypocritical…” (64). Even although Nesbit by no means tends to make funds through selling her physique, she is nevertheless a sort of whore by means of the marital relation with Harry since she demands to please her husband in order to feed herself. “Once Harry demanded proof of her devotion and it turned out nothing else would do but a fellatio… Afterward, he brushed the sawdust… gave her some bills from his money clip” (29). Females, as the vulnerable group in the society, would usually want to find a person to rely on through marriage. But subject to the unequal partnership amongst man and lady, the latter one particular has no selection but release her husband’s need and comply with each path according to the conventional doctrine of girls.

IV. Nesbit Struggles to Be a “Subject”

“Because it is the man who ‘takes’ the woman, he has somewhat far more possibility of choosing… But because the sexual act is regarded as a service assigned to woman… it is logical to ignore her personal preference” (Simone 423). Traditional ethical and moral requirements put lady as a servant who should please her master, or husband in other words, by satisfying his sexual want. During the erotic massage by Emma Goldman and the quick relationship with the Younger Brother, Nesbit progressively awakes from her former role as an “Object” and tries to turn into a “subject”.

Below Goldman’s guidance, Nesbit finds that she is far from a tool to please man, but an independent individual who could realize her personal worth. “Her eyes were closed and her lips stretched into an involuntary smile as Goldman massaged her breasts, her stomach, her legs” (70). In Goldman’s erotic massage, Nesbit gradually eases her physique and starts to unwind. “Nesbit place her personal hands on her breasts and her palms rotated the nipples. Her hands swam down along her flanks. She rubbed her hips… [Nesbit] began to ripple on the bed like a wave on the sea” (71). Conventional sexual morality criticizes masturbation as an immoral behavior with out love. But there’s also no really like among Nesbit and Harry, and it is really the sexual desire and the thirst for the fortune that combine them collectively. Harry desires to have sex, so he just treats Nesbit as a tool for him to play with Nesbit wants to turn out to be one particular of the riches, so she married herself to Harry. Realizing her status as an “Other” imposed by the society, Nesbit ultimately tends to make her way to break the chains by finding a accurate self. With the help of Goldman, she unbuttoned her shirtwaist and removed it (68). Right after unshackling the chains, Nesbit activates her stiff limbs and enjoys the pleasure of relaxing herself.

As Greil Marcus questions in his assessment, “what may possibly Evelyn Nesbit’s odyssey from the penthouses to the streets be, if Doctorow hadn’t lost his nerve with her?” (Marcus 61-2). In her connection with the Younger Brother, Nesbit is totally obtaining a pleasant experience. “They created really like gradually and sinuously, humping every other into such supple states of orgasm that they identified very small reason to talk the rest of the time they have been together” (94). But abruptly “the Young Man was in mourning” and “Evelyn Nesbit had become indifferent to him and when he persisted his really like she had turn out to be hostile” (128). Even though Doctorow has already ambushed the answer just before that, telling the readers “All he could do was commit his life to hers and work to satisfy her smallest whim” (one hundred), the major lead to is that “she wanted a person who would treat her badly and whom she could treat badly. She longed a challenge to her wit” (100).

In Beauvoir’s words, “man wants to give, and right here lady taking for herself” (206), which recommend men are active although women are passive. Becoming treated as an object which only gets a fairly face, Nesbit is fed up with the judgment created by man simply because “there is a double demand of man which dooms lady to duplicity… he fancies her as at as soon as servant and enchantress” (Beauvoir 204). So she tries to regain the control of herself at the extremely time she does not want to be an “Object” anymore. Nesbit begins her connection with the Younger Brother out of sympathy and leaves him out of her totally free will for “she belongs to no man, but yields herself to 1 and all and lives off such commerce to regain that formidable independence” (Beauvoir 207).

“All this human progress has been achieved by guys. Women have been left behind, outdoors, under, obtaining no social relation what ever, merely the sex-relation, whereby they lived” (Gilman, 45). Despite the fact that Nesbit has created some difference in her own story, there is no actual change towards the male-dominant human progress. Doctorow desires to use Nesbit as a character to represent thousands of “human mother[s] [who] worked harder than a mare, laboring her life-extended in the service” (47) in his time. As she has jumped out of the cage and broken the criterion of the patriarchal society, punishment is unavoidable for what she has accomplished could not be accepted by the mainstream social ideology. The purpose why Doctorow doesn’t create Nesbit thereafter she leaves the Younger Brother may possibly nicely be that he wants to make the very best of this character and salute to everything she has completed to get out of the restriction set by the patriarchal society, her bravery and the ladies she represents who fight for rights and status in the feminist movements.

V. Conclusion

As a notorious socialite as properly as a virtuous lady, Evelyn Nesbit leads a contradictory life between miserable existence and a life of luxury, where she struggles to develop herself as an individual instead of an “Object”. Nesbit is neither a wanton nor a kind-hearted lady she is in fact a complicated figure with each strength and shortcomings. Every single step of Nesbit shows her thirst for adjust. With the aid of Goldman, she gains autognosis by way of masturbation and steadily takes initiative about sex and her physique. Throughout her connection with the Younger Brother, Nesbit acts as a stronger and dominant Brother’s adore. So Nesbit is neither a good particular person nor a greedy a single, she is just an ordinary lady who desires to win an equal position and get rid of her label as an “Object” via her endeavor.

Work Cited:

Clemons, Walter. “Houdini, Meet Ferdinand.” Rev. of Ragtime, by E. L. Doctorow. Newsweek 14 July 1975: 76. Print.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Trans. H. M. Parshley. 1953. London: Lowe and Brydone, 1956. Print.

Doctorow, E. L. Ragtime. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1975. Print.

Gilman, C. P. Ladies and Economics: A Study of the Financial Relation in between Males and Girls as a Factor in Social Evolution. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998. Print.

Hart, Jeffrey. “Doctorow Time.” Rev. of Ragtime, by E. L. Doctorow. National Evaluation 15 August 1975: 892. Print.

Judith, Butler. “Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex.” Yale French Research 72. (1986): 35–49. Print

Marcus, Greil. “‘Ragtime’ and ‘Nashville’: Failure-of-America Fad.” The Village Voice 4 August 1975: 61-two. Print.

Miguel, Maria F. S. “The Collusion of Feminist and Postmodernist Impulses in E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime” Complutense Journal of English Research. 23 (2015): 97-114. Print.

Riane, Eisler. Sacred Pleasure: Sex, Myth, and the Politics of the Body. San Franciso: HarperCollins, 1996. Print.

Rollyson, Carl, ed. Crucial Survey of Extended Fiction. Pasadena: Salem Press, 2010. Print.

Sale, Roger. “From Ragtime to Riches.” Rev. of Ragtime, by E. L. Doctorow. The New York Overview of Books 7 August 1975: 21-two. Print.

Sokolov, Raymond. “In Book World.” The Washington Post 13 July 1975: 1. Print.

Sheppard, R. Z. “The Music of Time.” Rev. of Ragtime, by E. L. Doctorow. Time 14 July 1975: 64. Print.

Chen, Xiaofei & Cheng Liang. “Literature and Politics in E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime—from the Perspective of New Historicism.” Journal of Language and Literature Research. 5 (2009): 28. Print.

Xian, Yujing. “Women of the ‘Developing Age’—Analysis of Female Social Status in Ragtime.” Sources of Literature and Education. 22.654 (2014): 14. Print.

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