Throughout "Traffic," Ruskin speaks directly to his audience — often rebutting his own points, standing in for both sides of the argument (i.e. "'Nay,' perhaps you answer: 'we need rather to ask what these people and children do, than what they like"). These moments, though presumptuous in the way they try to preempt or even control the audience's opinion, stay rooted just enough in reality to not distract too much from the lecture's goals as a piece of nonfiction. In a few places, however, Ruskin veers away from realism entirely, drawing on hypothetical conversation-with made-up settings and characters-to help make his point:

'You, my friend in the rags, with the unsteady gait, what do you like?' 'A pipe and a quartern of gin.' I know you. 'You, good woman, with the quick step and tidy bonnet, what do you like?' 'A swept hearth and a clean tea-table, and my husband opposite me, and a baby at my breast.' Good, I know you also. 'You, little girl with the golden hair and the soft eyes, what do you like?' 'My canary, and a run among the wood hyacinths.' 'You, little boy with the dirty hands and the low forehead, what do you like?' 'A shy at the sparrows, and a game at pitch-farthing.' Good; we know them all now. What more need we ask? . . .

'Ah,' says my employer, 'damask curtains, indeed! That's all very fine, but you know I can't afford that kind of thing just now!' 'Yet the world credits you with a splendid income!' 'Ah, yes,' says my friend, 'but do you know, at present, I am obliged to spend it nearly all in steel-traps?' 'Steel-traps! for whom?' 'Why, for that fellow on the other side the wall, you know: we're very good friends, capital friends; but we are obliged to keep our traps set on both sides of the wall; we could not possibly keep on friendly terms without them, and our spring guns. The worst of it is, we are both clever fellows enough; and there's never a day passes that we don't find out a new trap, or a new gun-barrel, or something; we spend about fifteen millions a year each in our traps, take it all together; and I don't see how we're to do with less.'


1. Ruskin delivered "Traffic" as a lecture. Do fictional characters and dialogues seem at all out of place in a lecture, or at least more so than in an essay or a nonfiction novel? How might Ruskin have handled giving voices to the characters in his work? Does it matter? Would it be possible to gain some insight as to how Ruskin delivered his speech — perhaps through a firsthand account by a witness, a journalist's report, or even through a broad description of how Ruskin spoke in general — or can text-based media never truly capture the subtleties of a performance art?

2. Does Ruskin strengthen or weaken his argument by comparing nations (collectives of people) to fictional characters (individuals)? For a reader or an audience member, would it be more difficult to engage with the extended steel-traps metaphor if the two men were instead two gangs, two clans, or two families? In literary works concerning terrible catastrophes (war, plague, etc), authors sometimes decide to focus on the suffering of a single character instead of trying to describe the event as a whole. Newspaper articles, too, often discuss a tragedy from the perspective of a single witness. To some extent, this decision to focus on the individual rather than on the collective can be justified by the oft-repeated idea that the human brain cannot comprehend the experiences of more than one person at once. As Albert Camus puts it in The Plague,

But what are a hundred million deaths? When one has served in a war, one hardly knows what a dead man is, after a while. And since a dead man has no substance unless one has actually seen him dead, a hundred million corpses broadcast through history are no more than a puff of smoke in the imagination. [38]

When he chose metaphorically to cram an entire nation into one character, might Ruskin have been following (or anticipating) Camus's rationale?

3. It's been said that reading a script in silence or out loud in a classroom differs significantly from actually seeing the play performed in theater (with greater value typically being assigned to the latter). Assuming this claim to be true, can it also be made about "Traffic," which was also originally conceived as a kind of script, something to be performed?

4. Much like "Traffic," Carlyle's "Signs of the Times" approaches ethics and values from a historical perspective, trying to show how society has changed over the centuries — for the worse, according to both authors. Carlyle, however, opts to keep his writing conversation-free. What impact does the absence of dialogue in Carlyle's writing have on accessibility, rhetorical strength, rhythm, etc? Can either author's strategy be considered superior to the other's?

Last modified 21 April 2009

6 May 2019