I’ll tell you who you are, says the circus performer, for a dollar. I’ll tell you your age and weight — give or take a few with no questions asked, no files checked, just by the way you conspicuously doff your hat to hint of the grey, the quick escape of silver behind your close-mouthed smile, the slight tricks that give your type away. Thus, for entertainment, we gladly throw our money and ask of our character, yet for true education, we ignore the sage who teaches, gratis, on the state of our morality. In his lecture, “Traffic,” John Ruskin, cognizant of his audience’s expectations, entertains:

'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?

Ruskin typecasts in the carnivalesque manner common to society, using “these people and children” to disprove a different popular belief — that outer actions determine one’s character — and instead lectures that it is our inner affections, which determine who we are. Ruskin asks the imagined, “What do you like,” so that we may truthfully ask ourselves, who we are.


1. Other writers also take on flawed characteristics of their society and in the process of ridiculing the first, reveal a greater problem. How does Joan Didion use of personal anecdotes follow or modify this technique?

2. Do you agree that Ruskin’s stereotyping, rather than detract from his credibility, adduces his argument and elevates his judgment?

3. Ruskin challenges, “Tell me what you like, and I’ll tell you what you are, whereas Thomas Carlyle, in his tract, “Hudson’s Statue,” says, “Show me the man you honour; I know by that symptom, better than by any other, what kind of man you yourself are.” Are Ruskin and Carlyle’s challenges based on the index of inner taste alone, or is Carlyle’s assertion also based upon physical action?

4. Do Ruskin and Carlyle serve, solely, to tell society of its depraved state, or do their lectures have a greater aim? Does either lecture provide hope for change?

Victorian Overview John Ruskin Political History

Last modified 28 February 2011