Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The narrative device of the enclosure (placing the characters in a confining situation that isolates them) serves a variety of functions. The behavior of the characters as they interact with one another may be more easily observed in a situation in which there are minimal outside influences, ensured in “The Southern Thruway” by the hostility of the neighboring cars and farmers. The group is a microcosm of society in general; as in a medieval religious drama, also meant to symbolize the world, the characters include children, youths (the boys in the Simca), and old people, as well as representatives of the Church (the nuns), the military (the soldier), business (the traveling salesperson), professions (the engineer, the doctor), and farmers. It includes all aspects of the human life cycle, from conception (Dauphine’s child) to death, both natural and suicidal. The situation encompasses summer and winter, hope and despair.

The technique of identifying individuals only by the names of their cars depersonalizes them and emphasizes their function in the microcosm. It recalls the origin of surnames, when people were called John the Tailor or Paul the Shoemaker. Thus, it is a part of the transition to a primitive communal world of basic need fulfillment where the inessential is stripped away, and “the girl in the Dauphine” becomes simply Dauphine. It is also appropriate to the highway world where driver and car are referred to as one unit (“Watch out for that Ford up there”), where identity is defined by the car. It is also a reminder of the depersonalization of the twentieth century world where individuals are labeled by their social security, registration, or hospital admission numbers.

The sentence rhythms are adapted to the events of the story. While the cars are still moving along, the long sentences flow along, broken by series of jerky clauses as the cars begin to stop and start. As the traffic speeds up at the end, again long breathless sentences hurtle the reader through the night toward Paris.

The traffic jam symbolizes the breakdown of twentieth century technology and the consequent rediscovery of age-old human instincts and values. With warmth and humor, the story presents an optimistic view of basic human nature. It contrasts twentieth century impersonality and hurry with a primitive tribal society and reflects on the differences, returning to the contemporary world in the end.