Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 347
The Southern Thruway can be interpreted as a literal rendering of a dreaded but commonplace aspect of modern life—the highway traffic jam—and a metaphysical commentary on the obstacles one encounters on the road of life. But a simplistic rendering of these two approaches would not give Julio Cortázar sufficient credit for crafting a novel that does more than rely on a gimmick. Cortázar delves into the meaning of community and mortality, as his characters accept their stalled situation more than they struggle to comprehend it, sometimes displaying distraught, emotional reactions.
Set on a southern French freeway, the novel asks the reader to consider why people accept adverse circumstances and why they do not struggle against an inconvenient, though not apparently disastrous, situation. Cortázar may have intend the story to be a critique of supposed French passivity, a charge that has has been levied against them regarding the World War II surrender following the Nazi invasion. In contrast, the positive aspects of generosity and concern for others (who are likewise trapped on the highway) may allude specifically to French people's generous hearts or more generally to the ways that people cope when they find themselves—for however long—stuck in gridlock.
The fundamental logic of the situation is confirmed, rather than challenged, by the extended duration of the dilemma. The traffic jam shows no signs of abating as the seasons change; people fall in and out of love, and strangers become like family. The basic question of how communities form is partly answered as the drivers and passengers begin to organize for the distribution of necessary supplies, including food. The danger of exposure increases as time passes and winter comes on.
While the story is primarily existential and absurdist, Cortázar also presents concrete detail about peoples' lives so that the reader identifies with them and hopes that they can achieve their goals. As the jam starts to dissolve as quickly as it began (and equally without explanation) the reader may ask about the validity of any reasons provided for life's daily mysteries.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 392
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.