Vol. 27 No. 2 (2021)

Hungarian Narrato-Rhetorheme in an American Novel: Harry Houdini in E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime

Published December 5, 2021
Zoltán Abádi-Nagy
University of Debrecen

The escape artist of Doctorow’s Ragtime is in close relationship with each transposed and fictitious character through an aspectual transmission system of character-motivation. The variegated and diverging perceptual and cognitive processes of the numerous characters may reveal a centrifugal system of storyworlds, but the multiform manifestations of being shackled and the desire to escape do meet in the anchoring image of the shackled Harry Houdini and his escape bravura. So Doctorow’s Houdini will be studied here as an aspectual coordinate of the novel.

On the other hand, the mentality emanating from the escape artist’s narrative function of aspectual coordination and the other characters’ positional predicaments and motivational concerns that reflect the same mentality, jointly perform the rhetorical role of suasion. Thus, Ragtime’s Houdini can be subjected to a narrato-rhetorical investigation. I propose that he is a hermeneutically coded cultural narrato-rhetorheme in the novel and the source of further narrato-rhetorhemes of storyworlds that come under his semantic sway. (I introduced the notion of the “cultural narrato-rhetorheme” in a former HJEAS issue [2014/1]). The book’s transposed Houdini is both an overt cultural narrato-rhetorheme (he is present in the narratorial discourse: the narrator actually meets him) and a covert one (embedded in the storyworld). The notions of “repeating,” “factoid,” “contextual,” “assimilative,” and “enthymematic” narrato-rhetorheme will also be introduced as descriptive of Houdini’s manifold narrato-rhetorical roles.

Ragtime’s epistemological tandem (the narrator[s] and Houdini) makes it unequivocal that the modality of the narratorial domain is epistemic. This also sets the escape artist into the novel’s focus; as does the book’s lead (deontic) modality, through the African American ragtime pianist’s defiance of racist cultural prohibition. (ZAN)