John Ruskin illustrates the link between architecture and morality in "Traffic." Invited to provide architectural guidance, at first refuses to do so. Because he does not believe that beautiful art can come from a corrupted society like England, he thus will not tell his audience in what style to build. Ruskin explains that morality and artistic taste are deeply connected, because "What we like determines what we are, and is the sign of what we are; and to teach taste is inevitably to form character." He mocks the taste of England, using descriptions of its current architecture as proof of corruption and immorality. He begins his ridicule by describing the wealthy Englishman's ideal, which consists of both a mill and a mansion.

Your ideal of human life then is, I think, that it should be passed in a pleasant undulating world, with iron and coal everywhere underneath it. On each pleasant bank of this world is to be a beautiful mansion, with two wings; and stables, and coach-houses; a moderately sized park; a large garden and hot houses; and pleasant carriage drives through the shrubberies. In this mansion are to live the favoured votaries of the Goddess; the English gentleman, with his gracious wife, and his beautiful family; always able to have the boudoir and the jewels for the wife, and the beautiful ball dresses for the daughters, and hunters for the sons, and a shooting in the Highlands for himself. At the bottom of the bank, is to be the mill; not less than a quarter of a mile long, with a steam engine at each end, and two in the middle, and a chimney three hundred feet high. In this mill are to be in constant employment from eight hundred to a thousand workers, who never drink, never strike, always go to church on Sunday, and always express themselves in respectful language… 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.

This elegant home, the epitome of materialism, lies above iron and coal, suggesting that its owners depend on industrialism, commerce, and intensive labor. For one family to enjoy the lifestyle Ruskin describes, many must live in poverty. The suffering families worship the Goddess of not Getting on. The Goddess of Getting on represents British commerce, and those who worship her include the businessmen Ruskin addresses. The mill at the bottom of the bank symbolizes the industry against which both Thomas Carlyle and Ruskin write. The modern developments caused by the Industrial revolution stood as artistic and moral disasters to Ruskin. He describes the home with steam engines, mills, and a large chimney. Chimneys give off the dirt and smoke that has made England so ugly. According to Keunjung Cho, "Images such as railroads and chimneys, emblems of industrialization and modernization, enforce Ruskin's "painting" of England as polluted and ugly, his notion that buildings and structures symbolize and reflect England's degeneration into an increasingly materialist state concerned with "Getting-on" in the market" (Source). Two of Ruskin's critical points appear in the passage above. First he criticizes on the lavish lifestyles enjoyed by the upper classes, and then he alludes to the impoverishment and hideous architecture that results from industrialism.

Ruskin finds the current state of architecture (and mankind) troubling, since none of the actual choices of buildings appear consistent with the character of the creators. He suggests changing architecture back to Gothic, but not without reform. Currently, hypocrisy exists in a society that lives one way and worships another. He criticizes the state of religion in the following passage:

But now you live under one school of architecture, and worship under another . . . Am I to understand that you are thinking of changing your architecture back to Gothic; and that you treat your churches experimentally, because it does not matter what mistakes you make in a church? Or am I to understand that you consider Gothic a pre-eminently sacred and beautiful mode of building, which you think, like the fine frankincense, should be mixed for the tabernacle only, and reserved for your religious services? For if this be the feeling, though it may seem at first as if it were graceful and reverent, you will find that, at the root of the matter, it signifies neither more nor less than that you have separated your religion from your life…. you mean to build as Christians or as Infidels? And still more — do you mean to build as honest Christians or as honest Infidels

This criticism targets the insincerity of churchgoers, who only give a few hours of their week to the ideals of the church and feel free to sin outside of it. He suggests that the so-called Christians do not actually act with the morals they ascribe to themselves. Though he supports Gothic architecture, he does not believe it can come from a corrupt society, and eventually goes on to suggest that England reform.

Questions

1. Though Ruskin was an atheist, why does he criticize his Christian audience for not living up to their religious ideals? Why does he include so many religious references in his work?

2. In this passage, Ruskin satirizes businessmen, making fun of what their ideal home would look like. Later, though, he aligns with them by suggesting that they are not at fault for the state of the country and must help him to create change. Why does Ruskin both insult and eventually ally with the audience?

3. The mansion described has two wings and a steam engine at each end of the mill, examples of symmetry. Though Ruskin finds beauty in symmetry, known for the quote "In all perfectly beautiful objects, there is found the opposition of one part to another, and a reciprocal balance" (Modern Painters, Ruskin), it seems strange he chooses to include symmetry in the description of this mill and mansion. Why does he do this?

4. How does Ruskin's view on the effect of the industrial revolution coincide, or differ, with the view held by Thomas Carlyle? What methods do they use in order to convey these messages? One might compare the tone type of delivery of their works or the purpose that discussion of industry serves in each. Though both were opponents of the Industrial Revolution, what differences exist in their arguments?

5. How might Ruskin's audience feel about his description of the perfect English home? Was this an effective way of addressing his audience?

6. How does Ruskin display his views of wealth in his address about architecture? What evidence in "Traffic" suggests Ruskin's support of Socialism?


Victorian Overview John Ruskin Leading Questions

Last modified 13 April 2009