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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 402

The highway to Paris is backed up until traffic is almost completely stopped and no one knows why. Rumors fly through the streets as roaming people come up with new stories—two cars colliding or two different cars hitting each other only to spiral into a bus or an airport bus...

(The entire section contains 1240 words.)

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The highway to Paris is backed up until traffic is almost completely stopped and no one knows why. Rumors fly through the streets as roaming people come up with new stories—two cars colliding or two different cars hitting each other only to spiral into a bus or an airport bus turning over. However, people don't have any assurances that it's going to end soon or any idea what to expect as the hours and days pass, as they are still trapped in their cars.

Slowly, the engineer in the Peugeot 404 gets to know the people around him. He debates the situation with the people in the Ariane and the Taunus. He falls for the girl in the Dauphine. He's friendly with two nuns in a 2CV and two boys in a Simca (though he dislikes them at first). They form a little community with some of the others around them and, together, work to determine what to do, how to get food, how to avoid falling ill, and how to take care of one another—especially the children.

The farmers refuse to sell them food, citing laws about sales to private people. They can't leave the highway without being attacked. They can only slowly move forward, hoping to get to Paris and off the highway. Even when the man in the Caravelle kills himself, they can only continue forward. They seal him in the trunk and someone takes over driving his car to keep the highway clear.

The engineer's group comes together and decides that they need to take stock of their provisions and use them for the entire group to get through the unending traffic jam together. They share blankets, give the women cars to sleep in, and use the Simca's inflatable mattress for one of the nuns and the girl from the Dauphine. They form different communities that have official transactions with each other. A doctor roams between groups and treats the ill.

Traffic starts to clear eventually, though. The engineer realizes that he's losing sight of the people he'd spend so much time with. He starts to panic and doesn't want to let go of the people he survived the hardships with, but they're already gone—lost in the flow of traffic. He thinks that it's strange to be driving so quickly with everyone looking ahead and not knowing anything about the people in the cars around them.

Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 838

“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 beyond their primitive commune are also forming themselves into survival units. Those in the group pool their food and water, choose a leader, and send out exploratory parties to seek supplies and information.

The members of the group adapt to their situation. Thefts of communal supplies are punished, care for the children and the ailing is arranged, and even a suicide (the strained man in the Caravelle) is taken in stride and the body sealed into the Caravelle’s trunk with glue and Scotch tape. Days go by and the weather turns cold. Inexplicably, the farmers who live near the highway are hostile. They beat and threaten anyone who trespasses, and they refuse to sell food. “It was enough to step out of the thruway’s boundaries for stones to come raining in from somewhere. In the middle of the night, someone threw a sickle that hit the top of the DKW and fell beside the Dauphine.”

As winter sets in, new ingenuities are necessary. A Ford Mercury and a Porsche sell supplies, at a price, and people make warm clothes out of seat covers, fear for the lives of their car batteries, and huddle together. They help one another through times of desperation and illness. A doctor trudges through the snow to visit the sick. There is happiness in survival, in the security of repeated routines, and in the discreet alliances managed by many of them, including the engineer and the girl in the Dauphine.

With the coming of mild spring days, more sociable relationships with neighbors are restored. Human rhythms accord with the changing seasons: The girl in the Dauphine tells the engineer she is pregnant, and the old lady in the ID dies. Suddenly, “when nobody expected it anymore,” traffic begins to move again, slowly at first and then faster. Yearning for Paris—for hot water and clean sheets and white wine—the drivers advance eagerly, but when the engineer looks over into the next lane, the Dauphine is no longer beside him. Trapped in the flow of various traffic lanes, the members of the commune are separated. The group is irrevocably dispersed as the cars move faster and faster, and the engineer realizes sadly that “the everyday meetings would never take place again, the few rituals, and war councils in Taunus’s car, Dauphine’s caresses in the quiet of night, the children’s laughter as they played with their little cars, the nun’s face as she said her rosary.” The engineer tries to stop and find his friends, but it is impossible as the cars go racing along. He cannot believe that the simple communal joys are left behind as they rush along “at fifty-five miles an hour toward the lights that kept growing, not knowing why all this hurry, why this mad race in the night among unknown cars, where no one knew anything about the others, where everyone looked straight ahead, only ahead.”

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