The Far and the Near by Thomas Wolfe
In The Far and the Near by Thomas Wolfe we have the theme of isolation, experience, paralysis, connection, perception and regret. Taken from his The Complete Short Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story it becomes clear to the reader that Wolfe may be exploring the theme of isolation. By situating the house on the edge of town, away from others, Wolfe manages to give the reader a feel that the house (and its occupants) may be isolated from others. However it may also be significant that the house, though isolated, is looked after by its occupants. They may be isolated from others yet they still manage to live their lives comfortably. Something that is noticeable by the fact that the old woman and her daughter, who has now grown, wave to the engineer of the train as it passes by their property. It may also be a case that Wolfe is exploring the theme of experience. The engineer has seen it all over the years that he has worked on the train. Most notably he remembers the four tragedies that occurred and resulted in the loss of life. Though he bears no responsibility for any of the accidents he cannot forget them. It is as though he is paralyzed by the past.
It is also clear that the engineer in some ways is able to connect with the old woman and her daughter as they wave to him from the house. Their appearance soothes the engineer. Helping him at times to break the monotony of his job. The fact that the engineer also wants to meet the old woman and her daughter suggests that he wishes to connect with them in some way too. However what is really interesting about the story is the fact that when the engineer retires and has the opportunity to meet the old woman and her daughter things do not go as planned. The engineer realises that his view from the train, which is in many ways romanticized by the narrator, is a different view to the realities of life. The friendliness shown by the old woman and her daughter as they wave at the engineer is not the same in real life. Which is to be expected. The engineer after all is a stranger to the old woman and her daughter. They have no idea who he is when he knocks on their door. Though it is noticeable that they do nonetheless invite the engineer into their home. Welcoming him despite the fact that he is a stranger.
The title of the story may also be symbolically important as Wolfe appears to be distinguishing between what is at a distance and what is close. When the engineer is on the train the old woman and her daughter seem friendly and warm, though they may be at a distance from the engineer. Yet when the engineer is close to the old woman and her daughter it is as though things are cold. There is no connection between the three individuals even though the engineer longs for a connection. It is also possible that Wolfe is suggesting that an individual can romanticize, as the narrator and engineer does, the link between people when the relationship is viewed upon not only from a physically distant point but mentally an individual can also view a relationship in a different light when at a distance. Which is very much the case when it comes to the engineer. If anything the engineer’s perception of the old woman and her daughter changes when he meets them. The house itself may also be symbolically important as Wolfe may be using it as foreshadowing particularly if the reader considers what happens the engineer at the end of the story. He too like the house is isolated.
Though the old woman and her daughter are physically distant from others throughout the story. The engineer too remains isolated. Despite knocking on the old woman’s door the engineer realises that he has made a mistake. That things are not as he expected them to be. The realities of life are very different from the romanticized view that the engineer has. Not only are the old woman and her daughter suspicious of the engineer, which is very normal, but the engineer’s view of the old woman is not the same view that he can remember from waving at the old woman from the train. Which makes it difficult for the engineer to make a connection with the old woman and her daughter. Due to his inability to see life for what it is (living in reality) the narrator has managed to romanticize his experiences of the old woman and her daughter. Which may be the point that Wolfe is attempting to make. He may be suggesting that what an individual sees from a distance is not necessarily the same when one is nearer. There has to be a place for reality and that reality for the narrator leads to him regretting his actions of attempting to make a connection with the old woman and her daughter.