Ruskin's speech in "Traffic" uses examples that avoid using only abstract ideas and relies instead on the interactions between common men. This human example strikes readers as commonplace and yet all the more provoking because it brings the level of thought from a vague political or ideological position to one that is grounded in humanity. Ruskin attacks the arms race by placing it within the context of two neighbors rather than two countries, which eliminates the politics surrounding relations between two countries and focuses on relationships between men.

Friends, I know not whether this thing be the more ludicrous or the more melancholy. It is quite unspeakably both. Suppose, instead of being now sent for by you, I had been sent for by some private gentleman, living in a suburban house, with his garden separated only by a fruit wall from his next door neighbour's: and he had called me to consult with him on the furnishing of his drawing-room. I begin looking about me, and find the walls rather bare; I think such and such a paper might be desirable-perhaps a little fresco here and there on the ceiling-a damask curtain or so at the windows. "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 altogether; and I don't see how we're to do with less." A highly comic state of life for two private gentlemen! But for two nations, it seems to me, not wholly comic. Bedlam would be comic, perhaps, if there were only one madman in it; and your Christmas pantomime is comic, when there is only one clown in it; but when the whole world turns clown, and paints itself red with its own heart's blood instead of vermilion, it is something else than comic, I think. [p. 278]

Readers can understand a more complicated truth because Ruskin uses symbolism by taking broader political ideas of warring nations and making them simply about the relationship between two neighbors. His inclusion of dialogue emphasizes the interaction between one man and another and parallels this interaction with a relationship between two countries. Ruskin criticizes countries for their actions and his criticism makes escape from responsibility impossible, since he suggests that each country is just a substitute for the individual. Ruskin uses ideas of substitution and representation to show readers how looking at any given situation from a different perspective can provide a different understanding, paralleling "heart's blood" with "vermillion". Representational truth may create a comedic effect, but representation bases itself on truth. Ruskin blends the ludicrous and the melancholy with representation to prove that society is based on human interaction, and that each individual cannot escape responsibility by blaming the whole.


1. Why does Ruskin include dialogue in this essay? What is the effect of placing himself in conversation with this character?

2. What does Ruskin say about the divide between comedy and tragedy? How does he create the idea of its connection in the final sentence?

3. What is the effect of the example Ruskin uses to illustrate countries at war with one another? Why does he choose to use "common" men to illustrate his point, and what is the effect of this?

4. Why does Ruskin include the phrase "I think" at the end of the last sentence in the paragraph? What is the effect of this added phrase and does it strengthen or weaken his argument?

5. What is Ruskin's story modeled on? Is it a parable? Why does he use this story and what effect does it have on his argument?


Ruskin, John. The Genius of John Ruskin. Ed. John Rosenberg. Charlottesville: U of Virginia Pres, 1998.

Last modified 16 October 2006

6 May 2019