Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Julio Cortázar bases his story on an experience common to everyone, a traffic jam, and on a common response: an impatient, exasperated “I feel as though I’ve been here for days.” Well, speculates Cortázar, what if it were days, what if the figure of speech became literally true? The traffic jam becomes an emergency situation that brings out the best in everyone (leadership qualities, compassion, generosity, fairness) as the group collectively fights for survival. Stripped of possessions, of acquired social status and influence, of all the qualities and barriers that would normally isolate them from one another, the denizens of the freeway form close bonds with their companions. There is real satisfaction in contributing to the primitive tribal society where each member of the group has a function and is essential, where each member is cared for and recognized. Twentieth century technology is reduced to a collection of metal boxes and radios that cease to convey any message relevant to their actual situation. The individuals discover resilience and dormant primitive skills within themselves and take pleasure in this meaningful connection with their ancestral heritage. Positive human values are revealed when these superficial overlayers of materialism, technology, and the rush of contemporary life are stripped away. These are twentieth century men and women, and when traffic does move they must inevitably go with it, however regretful they may feel. The metaphors of the river (or highway) of life and the medieval dance of death (of which one is explicitly reminded by the sickle, symbol of death) are ones of inexorable progression; once cars enter the thruway they must move along to their destinations.