26 pages 52 minutes read

Thomas Wolfe

The Far and the Near

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1935

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Far and the Near”

“The Far and the Near” by American author Thomas Wolfe was first published in 1935. The story is set in rural America in the early 20th century and tells of a train engineer who passes the same cottage on his route for over 20 years. When the engineer retires, he visits the people who live in the cottage for the first time. The story explores themes such as The Relentless Passage of Time, Idealized Perception Versus Reality, and The Value and Impermanence of Human Connection. Wolfe’s story can be categorized as a Modernist short story, a genre typically associated with a departure from Realism and traditional story structure. Wolfe was additionally connected with the literary movement known as the Southern Renaissance, characterized by a focus on the complexities of the American South.

This guide refers to the version of the text that is freely available on the Thomas Wolfe Memorial website.

Content Warning: This guide and the source material briefly reference death by suicide.

Narrated with a limited third-person point of view, the story opens by recounting a train engineer’s experiences over the past 20 years. The engineer would pass by the same small house near the tracks every day at two o’clock in the afternoon. He perceives the house as a well-cared-for dwelling that blends harmoniously with its natural surroundings, inviting a sense of tranquility and modest charm. In his years spent aboard his train, the engineer memorized intimate details about the house, such as the color of the blinds and the types of vegetables and fruits in the garden. Overall, the house emanated an atmosphere of comfort.

Every day during his tenure, the engineer would blow the whistle when the train passed this house, and in response, a woman would come outside to wave at the train. Initially, the woman held a small child by her side, but as years passed, the child grew into a woman who joined her mother daily to wave at the train, all while the engineer’s own children had grown up and gotten married. The engineer also caught glimpses of her through the window, observing her routines and moods. In the midst of all of the tragedies he saw in his life and endured aboard his train, including numerous deaths on the tracks, this image of the women and the little house became imperative to the engineer’s happiness, serving as a beacon of positivity that uplifted him in hard times.

When the engineer retires, the narration switches to present tense. Stepping off the train for the final time, the engineer decides to visit the house to meet the women in person, believing this to be an emotional, happy closure on this period of his life. He feels a sense of dread as he approaches the house, walking through the town and observing no familiarity despite his route having gone through town daily. He considers turning back, wondering if he should truly meet the women in the house, but he finds himself knocking on the door anyway. When she answers the door, the older woman seems wary and unappreciative of his presence, which unnerves him. He is also disappointed and shocked by her physical appearance. The woman who used to wave to him looks worn and tired, and she lacks the emotional warmth and affection he imagined she would possess. Her daughter is likewise disenchanted with the engineer. The engineer recognizes that his imagination has shaped his perception of the women and has built an idealized image that does not align with reality. The engineer’s romanticized perception of the women and the house is shattered, leaving him disoriented, disillusioned, and full of regret that he came to the house at all.

The engineer awkwardly says goodbye and departs. Leaving, he realizes that he is now an old man and that the world is not what he had imagined. The story ends with the engineer acknowledging that the magic and hope he once associated with the house and the women can never be recaptured.

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By Thomas Wolfe