In introducing "Traffic," Ruskin provides a disclaimer for his audience:

My good Yorkshire friends, you asked me down here among your hills that I might talk to you about this Exchange you are going to build: but earnestly and seriously asking you to pardon me, I am going to do nothing of the kind. I cannot talk, or at least can say very little, about this same Exchange. I must talk of quite other things, though not willingly; I could not deserve your pardon, if when you invited me to speak on one subject, I wilfully spoke on another

Yet, in a seeming contradiction to his introduction, Ruskin eventually offers a sobering proposal for the design of the Exchange (albeit a facetious one). How does he get away with this?

First, Ruskin distracts his listeners with the illusion that he will not be providing any advice: "You cannot have good architecture merely by asking people's advice on occasion. All good architecture is the expression of national life and character." He then establishes two critical points: (1) taste "is the ONLY morality" and (2) "every great national architecture has been the result and exponent of a great national religion.

Ruskin later on explains why Britain's national life and character cannot produce good architecture. Because English morals place money above pious acts, he declares, "the 'Goddess of Getting-on,' or 'Britannia of the Market" make up the national religion. Under his two conditions, the appropriate architectural "taste" representing both this morality and this religion would be the following design:

decorating its frieze with pendant purses; and making its pillars broad at the base for the sticking of bills. And in the innermost chambers of it there might be a statue of Britannia of the Market, who may have, perhaps advisably, a partridge for her crest, typical at once of her courage in fighting for noble ideas; and of her interest in game; and round its neck the inscription in golden letters, 'Perdix fovit qu non peperit.' [As the partridge, fostering what she brought not forth, so he that getteth riches, not by right shall leave them in the midst of his days, and at his end shall be a fool].

Thus, Ruskin cannot offer a proposal for "good architecture"; he can only offer one for the bad architecture England accurately deserves. By outwardly adhering to the purpose of the occasion, Ruskin's shockingly insulting design functions seamlessly in the essay as a symbol of his disapproval of society's attachment to money instead of equality.

Questions

1. Why did Ruskin choose a misleading introduction? Perhaps he intended to draw attention to the hypocritical nature of British society — men who do one thing and say another — those who are "perfectly ready to give the Gospel gratis, but never the loaves and fishes."

Ruskin also uses a question-answer technique frequently. How does this demonstrate his argument, as well?

2. Although Ruskin provides examples of art to represent "hateliness" ("a picture by Teniers") and loveliness ("a picture of Titian's, or a Greek statue, or a Greek coin, or a Turner landscape"), he fails to provide specific architectural examples for these characteristics throughout the essay. Does this indicate Ruskin's limited architectural knowledge, or the extent of his audience's knowledge? Does the omission make his argument more persuasive by allowing the audience to pick his/her own examples?

3. In "Traffic," Ruskin defines "good architecture" as "the work of good and believing men [ . . . ] the work of the commonalty, not of the clergy." England would produce good architecture if it were to take care of all classes: "do your commerce, and your feeding of nations, for fixed salaries; and to be as particular about giving people the best food, and the best cloth."

In The Stones of Venice, Ruskin elaborates on his dissatisfaction with the division of labor and unnecessary wealth of the rich. To what extent might his ideas have influenced nineteenthth-century trade unions? [See "Trade Unions," Wikepedia

4. Using the passage below, dscribe how does Ruskin's writing parallel that of his acquaintance Lewis Carroll? Consider how the simplified, condescending nature of "Traffic" functions in Carroll's "Alice" books. (Note that while Ruskin patronizes his audience through his tone, Carroll's characters tend to patronize Alice.)

Must one write adult satirical messages at a child's level to make them effective? At what points do Carroll and Ruskin risk insulting their readers through their patronizing tone?

`Why, what are your shoes done with?' said the Gryphon. `I mean, what makes them so shiny?'

Alice looked down at them, and considered a little before she gave her answer. `They're done with blacking, I believe.'

`Boots and shoes under the sea,' the Gryphon went on in a deep voice, `are done with a whiting. Now you know.'

`And what are they made of?' Alice asked in a tone of great curiosity.

`Soles and eels, of course,' the Gryphon replied rather impatiently: `any shrimp could have told you that.'

`If I'd been the whiting,' said Alice, whose thoughts were still running on the song, `I'd have said to the porpoise, "Keep back, please: we don't want you with us!"'

`They were obliged to have him with them,' the Mock Turtle said: `no wise fish would go anywhere without a porpoise.'

`Wouldn't it really?' said Alice in a tone of great surprise.

`Of course not,' said the Mock Turtle: `why, if a fish came to me, and told me he was going a journey, I should say "With what porpoise?"'

`Don't you mean "purpose"?' said Alice.

`I mean what I say,' the Mock Turtle replied in an offended tone. And the Gryphon added `Come, let's hear some of your adventures.'


Victorian Overview John Ruskin Leading Questions

Last modified 22 April 2009