John Ruskin in "Traffic" assumes the voice of the people he is criticizing and then responds to them in short order, creating a back and forth dialogue that imitates a real conversation. This technique is especially apt as the essay was originally delivered as a lecture, and Ruskin was face to face with both his audience and his opponents. The "you" in the piece not only represents the builders of the Exchange but also both the supposed voice of common sense at the time and the teachings of the classical economists against whom Ruskin has taken up arms. Rather than merely preaching his views directly, the call-and-response that results builds in momentum and takes on both the urgency and intimacy of a spirited dinner conversation.

Is not that, broadly, and in the main features, the kind of thing you propose to yourselves? It is very pretty indeed seen from above; not at all so pretty, seen from below. For, observe, while to one family this deity is indeed the Goddess of Getting on, to a thousand families she is the Goddess of not Getting on. 'Nay,' you say, 'they have all their chance.' Yes, so has every one in a lottery, but there must always be the same number of blanks. 'Ah! but in a lottery it is not skill and intelligence which take the lead, but blind chance.' What then! do you think the old practice, that 'they should take who have the power, and they should keep who can,' is less iniquitous, when the power has become power of brains instead of fist? and that, though we may not take advantage of a child's or a woman's weakness, we may of a man's foolishness? 'Nay, but finally, work must be done, and some one must be at the top, some one at the bottom.' Granted my friends. Work must always be, and captains of work must always be; and if you in the least remember the tone of any of my writings, you must know that they are thought unfit for this age, because they are always insisting on need of government, and speaking with scorn of liberty..."

The voice he assumes is composed in large part by common sayings and adages - by using impersonal phrases such as "They have all their chance," and "work must be done, and some one must be at the top, some one at the bottom," he makes sure that he has generalized the speaker enough so that it is a legitimate opponent and not a parody, and is inoffensive. In fact, after developing his argument fully, Ruskin pulls back and tempers the vigor of his attack. He sprinkles in a little sugar in order to take the edge off of his words:

I know that none of this wrong is done with deliberate purpose. I know, on the contrary, that you wish your workmen well; that you do much for them, and that you desire to do more for them, if you saw your way to it safely. I know that many of you have done, and are every day doing, whatever you feel to be in your power; and that even all this wrong and misery are brought about by a warped sense of duty, each of you striving to do his best, without noticing that this best is essentially and centrally the best for himself, not for others.

Thus, not only does his soften his words by making his adopted voice general and unimposing, he also draws back and reassures his audience of their good intentions. This has the effect of simultaneously making his dialogue personal but not insulting.


1. How does Ruskin's use of a different voice differ from that of Swift and Carlyle? How does he structure his back-and-forth dialogue so that the quick rhythm of his sentences aren't disrupted?

2. How does the fact that this essay was originally a lecture influence the style and the structure of this work? What differences does it have with Ruskin's other texts which are meant purely to be read, and not heard?

3. Ruskin weaves in a lot of the ideas that he has developed in Stones of Venice and The Lamps of Architecture, while also working in his criticisms of classical economics. How does he merge the two ideas into one essay? Where is the point of transition from one to another?

4. By softening his tone near the end, do you think Ruskin makes his criticisms less effective? What are the advantages and drawbacks of being too overt with the attack?

Last modified 1 March 2011

6 May 2019