“The Far and the Near” is a 1935 short story by American author Thomas Wolfe. Set in the rural American Midwest, it concerns a train engineer who, over the course of his life, comes to deeply romanticize and idealize a rural farmhouse and its inhabitants as he passes it each day along his route. At the end of his career, the engineer goes to meet the mother and daughter who live in the house; the contradiction between his imagination and their real selves stuns him. The short story falls squarely in the modernist tradition for its close examination of the fallibility of perception and the anticlimax of American romanticism.
The short story begins with a description of a small town in rural America. Set apart from the town by a long dirt road is a small, idyllic wooden cottage, painted white and with green shutters. In the summer, the cottage lies in the shade of three great trees. Each day, the engineer passes just after two o’clock as his train gains momentum, having just left the station at the nearby town. For more than two decades, the engineer blows the train’s whistle to greet the woman and her daughter who live in the house. The daughter starts as an infant in the mother’s arms, growing into a woman who joins her mother in waving back. The picturesque arrangement becomes a central fixture in the engineer’s daily life, tantamount to consistency, stability, beauty, and hope as he endures the harshness of the world. The engineer recalls four tragic incidents in his life when the train fatally struck innocent passers-by. He relates that the sight of the house and the women saved him from despair each time.
As the engineer nears retirement, he grows certain that he knows the whole lives of the woman and her daughter, even feeling something like paternal love. So confident is he that he plans to visit them on the first day of his retirement to convey how important they have been to him. At last, he retires and boards a train into the town near the house. As he walks through the town, he begins to question his choice: the town seems as though he has never visited it; indeed, he hasn’t beyond his thousands of trips on only one path along its outskirts. When he reaches the women’s house, he grows anxious but decides to complete his mission. The mother opens the door and seems nothing like he ever imagined from afar: she looks suspicious, hardened, and ugly, and speaks harshly. The engineer immediately regrets his choice. He tries to explain that he is the man at whom they have waved over the years but struggles to speak clearly. With obvious reluctance, the woman allows him to come inside and meet her daughter. He tries to talk to them, but they regard him coldly.
The engineer leaves the house perturbed from the unhappy meeting. He sinks into despair, believing that the only facet of his world that he ever regarded as perfect and true has been destroyed. As the story closes, his outlook on life becomes wholly pessimistic.