(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Southern Thruway” begins with a traffic jam on the main highway back to Paris from southern France, on a summer Sunday afternoon. It seems to be a perfectly ordinary occurrence as cars slow to a crawl, stop, and start up again. The drivers and passengers look irritably at their watches and begin to exchange comments with those in neighboring cars. As the traffic inches along in increasingly infrequent moves forward, the same group of cars stays together and their occupants gradually become acquainted. Although written in the third person, the story focuses on the experiences and thoughts of an engineer in a Peugeot 404.

Rumors circulate as to the cause of the traffic jam:No one doubted that a serious accident had taken place in the area, which could be the only explanation for such an incredible delay. And with that, the government, taxes, road conditions, one topic after another, three yards, another commonplace, five yards, a sententious phrase or a restrained curse.

The drivers stay in or near their cars, sweltering in the sun, waiting for the police to dissolve the bottleneck, impatient to move along and get to Paris. The cars continue to move ahead as a group, their drivers chatting to pass the time as they suffer “the dejection of again going from first to neutral, brake, hand brake, stop, and the same thing time and time again.”

By the time night falls, the new rumors brought by “strangers” to their group seem remote and unbelievable. The group share food and drink; surreptitiously, they relieve themselves by the roadside. Time begins to blur; “there was so little to do that the hours began to blend together, becoming one in the memory.”

The next day, they advance a few yards and continue to hope that the road will soon be clear. Again a stranger brings them hopeful news, but then they realize the “the stranger had taken advantage of the group’s happiness to ask for and get an orange,” and they become wary and more conscious of their cohesiveness as a group. The cars...

(The entire section is 838 words.)