Critical Essay on "The Far and the Near"

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Date: 2003
From: Short Stories for Students(Vol. 18. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 1,789 words

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The story title "The Far and the Near" presents two diametrically opposed concepts. In fact, if readers examine the title of the collection in which the story was included, From Death to Morning, they find two more opposite concepts. When death is associated with a time of day, it is usually night. Likewise, when morning is used to represent a life stage, it usually symbolizes birth. As C. Hugh Holman notes in his entry on Wolfe for American Writers, most of Wolfe's books featured opposites in their titles in either a suggestive or an overt way. Holman notes that this had to do with Wolfe's view on life: "Thomas Wolfe grappled in frustrated and demonic fury with what he called 'the strange and bitter miracle of life,' a miracle which he saw in patterns of opposites." This obsession with opposites is also evident in the content of Wolfe's tales themselves. "The Far and the Near" is a particularly vivid example of Wolfe's use of opposites. In the story, Wolfe employs distinct contrasts in imagery and word choice to increase the effectiveness of the story's mood shift.

Unlike the first half of the story, when his age is described with terms like 'grandeur and wisdom,' old age by the end of the story is unpleasant. The shock of reality has withered him, and his heart is 'sick with doubt and horror.'

This mood shift takes place at a very specific point in the story, directly after the engineer gets off his train and walks "slowly through the station and out into the streets of the town." Everything up to this point is described in positive terms, while everything past it is negative. This is most apparent in Wolfe's use of imagery. When the story begins, the reader is exposed to part of the vision that the engineer has survived on for more than twenty years. The town is described as the place where the train "halted for a breathing space" on its journey between its two destination cities. This quaint description associates the town with restful images, making it sound like a comfortable, tranquil place. This idea is amplified by the initial description of the house that the engineer passes every day: "a tidy little cottage of white boards, trimmed vividly with green blinds." The house also features "a garden neatly patterned" and "three mighty oaks" that provide shade. As the narrator notes, "The whole place had an air of tidiness, thrift, and modest comfort."

This positive image of the town and the cottage only increases when the engineer begins the waving ritual with the woman in the cottage, a routine that is prompted by the whistle of his train. "Every day for more than twenty years . . . a woman had appeared on the back porch of the little house and waved to him." The simple image of a woman waving at him becomes fixed in his mind and helps flesh out his overall vision of the town, cottage, the woman, and her daughter. This idyllic image gets the engineer through tough times because he thinks his vision is "something beautiful and enduring, something beyond all change and ruin."

When he goes to meet the women and tell them how this positive image has profoundly affected his outlook on life, he expects that the whole experience will be positive, too, since that is how for years he has anticipated this day. However, when he walks into the town for the first time, the imagery does not match his mental picture: "Everything was as strange to him as if he had never seen this town before." This feeling grows in the time he takes to walk all the way through the town to the women's cottage. When he gets to the cottage, he is able to identify it by "the lordly oaks," "the garden and the arbor," and other familiar characteristics such as the house's proximity to the railway. However, these images do not have the same positive connotations that they did in the beginning. The town and cottage are no longer quaint and comfortable. Instead, "the town, the road, the earth, the very entrance to this place he loved" has turned unrecognizable, like "the landscape of some ugly dream." The ugliness of this imagery increases when he is finally let into the house and led into "an ugly little parlor."

The women also turn out to be contrary to what he expected. In the first half of the story, his unwavering belief in the goodness and beauty of the women--created by the image of their waving--leads him to believe that he knows "their lives completely, to every hour and moment of the day." Perhaps more importantly, he assumes that they will greet him as a welcome friend. However, in the second half of the story, this image is also shattered. When he meets the older woman face-to-face, he knows "at once that the woman who stood there looking at him with a mistrustful eye was the same woman who had waved to him so many thousand times." However, just as the correct identification of the house by its exterior brings him no joy, neither does the woman's appearance. Her face is "harsh and pinched and meager," and the flesh sags "wearily in sallow folds." Even more disappointing, she does not welcome the engineer but instead views him with "timid suspicion and uneasy doubt."

In addition to the stark contrast in physical imagery, Wolfe also chooses contrasting words to represent the distinctly positive and negative ideas and feelings of the story's two halves. In the beginning, Wolfe's narrator instills a sense of strength in the engineer's train. The train is "great," "powerful," and achieves "terrific speed," and its progress is "marked by heavy bellowing puffs of smoke." The engineer is also described in terms that emphasize his strength: "He had driven his great train, loaded with its weight of lives, across the land ten thousand times." The fact that the engineer has successfully completed so many journeys, safely delivering his human cargo, underscores the idea of strength and dependability. In addition, the engineer has "the qualities of faith and courage and humbleness," and his old age is described in the best possible terms, with "grandeur and wisdom." He also feels "tenderness" for the two women, whose image is "carved so sharply in his heart." Even the tragedies he has seen on the railroad tracks have not affected his positive mood thanks to his idyllic vision of the two women.

However, when the engineer gets off the train and views the unfamiliar town, Wolfe starts to use words that seem uncharacteristic to the reader since they immediately follow the positive language of the first half. The engineer is no longer strong and sure, and neither is anything else. His "bewilderment and confusion" grow as he walks to the "straggling" outskirts of town, where "the street faded." Even the engineer's walk is described as a "plod" through "heat and dust." All of these words have negative connotations, which increasingly give the town and cottage a feeling of stagnation and impending death. These feelings intensify when he first sees the older woman and feels "a sense of bitter loss and grief."

Even sounds become negative, both the woman's "unfriendly tongue" and the engineer's own voice, which he is shocked to find sounds "unreal and ghastly." Like the descriptions of the town, the engineer's physical qualities, such as the strength of his voice, degrade in the second half of the story. After he spends his "brief agony of time" with the women, feeling "shameful" for coming, the man leaves, at which point he realizes that he is "an old man." Unlike the first half of the story, when his age is described with terms like "grandeur and wisdom," old age by the end of the story is unpleasant. The shock of reality has withered him, and his heart is "sick with doubt and horror." The engineer is no longer part of the railroad company, and thus he can no longer identify with the train, which sustained his illusion. At this point, he is truly alone and without hope.

As Elizabeth Evans notes in Thomas Wolfe, "The engineer is left disappointed and lonely, since the reality of the unfriendly cottage inhabitants precludes his hopes of friendship with them and indeed ruins his memory." This painfully negative ending is a huge contrast to the extremely positive beginning. This distinct difference between the two halves of the story gives it more impact, since readers experience two emotional extremes within a very short period of time. Holman notes the effectiveness of stories like this one: "On the level of dramatic scene, fully realized and impacted with immediacy, Wolfe could construct magnificently. Single episodes of his work, published separately as short stories, are powerful narrative units." In his article in Thomas Wolfe: A Harvard Perspective, James Boyer makes a similar observation about stories like this one, which were originally intended for Wolfe's novels. Boyer says, they "represent units complete in themselves which were to have functioned in the novel to illustrate various themes or facets of the national character."

This idea may cause readers to question Wolfe's motives behind the story. What was he trying to say about the national character? When one examines the historical context in which the story was written and compares this context to the use of time in the story, a possible answer presents itself. In the story, the engineer staked his faith on an idyllic vision in the past, which has failed to come true in the present. In fact, the present reality is horrible for him, and it destroys his optimism and hope. This transition directly parallels the time in which the story was written. In the 1930s, when Wolfe wrote the story, the United States was caught in the grip of the Great Depression, a time when people's optimism from the past was shown to be unfounded. The previous decade, the 1920s, had been a very positive time, since the nation had a strong economy. Many people assumed that the economy, and life in general, would continue to improve, and so they staked their futures--and in some cases their fortunes--on this vision by investing heavily in the stock market. When this vision failed, many were overcome with despair and hopelessness, just like the engineer. In the end, images such as the woman's "harsh and pinched and meager" face--a sign of poverty and possibly hunger--may be Wolfe's way of indicating the tough times that his public was experiencing during the Great Depression, when reality intruded on many dreams, and optimism was often met with disappointment and sorrow.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420049534