Through the use of contrasting structure and perspective, Thomas Wolfe’s stories “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” and “The Far and Near” work in collaboration to explore the relationship between the modernist concepts of isolation in society and the ultimately undefinable existential fulfillment that man seeks. Both stories feature characters that find comfort in the idea connection, which they actively seek out and cultivate; the stranger in Brooklyn wishes to “know” the area, much to the first person narrator’s dismay. The train engineer protagonist in “The Far and Near” finds a lifetime’s worth of comfort in the imaginary connection he forges with two strangers. Although neither story contains an uplifting conclusion, Wolfe’s treatment of the quest for fulfillment remains positive, indicating the continued worth of existential goals.
The first person narrator in “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” provides the audience with an initial sense of authenticity; a superficial reading may lend itself to an interpretation of the colloquialisms and familiarity of the narrator as evidence of his every-man quality. However, the narrator’s tendency to speak in absolutes, such as his firm belief that “Dere’s no guy livin’ dat known Brooklyn t’roo an’ t’roo,” (“Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” 1332) are evidence that he serves as a metaphor for convention, aiming to dissuade the stranger with whom he speaks from pursuing progressive interests, such as finding existential fulfillment in life.
Although neither character is able to eloquently explain his beliefs or behaviors, the stranger’s inability to explain the optimism in his actions beyond such casual claims as “I like duh sound of duh name,” (“Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” 1333) portrays him favorably. The narrator is negatively characterized in comparison. When asked why the stranger should not go to Red Hook, his response, “It’s a good place to stay away from, dat’s all,” (“Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” 1334,) focuses on negative action and stagnancy, the antithesis of the metaphorical progress the stranger wishes to make. His stubbornness is repeatedly recalled through his numerous exclamations- “A map! Red Hook! Jesus!” (“Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” 1334)- which indicate his unwillingness to process or consider the new perspective that the stranger, a representative of the modernist interpretation of man, offers. He is portrayed as crass, swearing and using religious expletives, in contrast to the stranger’s easy going attitude.
The narrator’s argument against the stranger’s desire to simply explore the city is centered on the claim that one cannot ever really know anything (here, a neighborhood) in simply one lifetime. He underscores the stranger’s incompetence by questioning, How’d yuh know deh was such a place… if yuh neveh been deh befoeh?” (“Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” 1333) Here, Wolfe draws attention to the modernist redefinition of a quest; prior to the movement, goals in literature were primarily achievement based. Modernist works, in contrast, typically feature characters on quests for existential fulfillment which can only be achieved through unknowable, intangible means. Continuing to serve as a metaphor for convention, the narrator is aghast that the stranger wants to pursue a goal which he superficially views as impossible.
The question, “How’d yuh know deh was such a place… if yuh neveh been deh befoeh?” (“Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” 1333) also introduces the concept of isolation in society, a direct obstacle to the stranger’s goal of “knowing” Brooklyn, a metaphor for existential fulfillment through human connection and relationships. The narrator repeatedly calls into question the credentials of the two men with whom he speaks, effectively highlighting their alienation in society. He asks the first man who attempts to help the stranger, “How long you been livin’ heah?” (“Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” 1333) only to promptly discount the man’s answer and retort that man’s connection to the area is irrelevant, mocking that the man “can tell me t’ings about this town day nobody else has eveh hoid of, either,” ((“Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” 1333.) He later directly shuts down the stranger’s as well, saying “I been livin’ heah all my life… an’ I don’t even know all deh is to know about it…” (“Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” 1334.) His snappy, condescending remarks emphasize again the impossibility of the goal of the stranger, but through them, Wolfe also creates a direct connection between the impossibility of this goal and the isolation from the society around them that modernist writers felt was prevalent in society.
The narrator and the stranger’s discussion about swimming and drowning is a final metaphor for the social isolation that the stranger wishes to alleviate. The stranger directly poses the question, “what becomes of people after dey’ve drowned out heah?” (“Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” 1335) to the narrator, an unusual technique employed by Wolfe. By having the stranger directly present this metaphor to the narrator, only for the narrator to take it at face value, “yuh can’t drown i Brooklin,” (“Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” 1335,) he solidifies the disconnect between the convention that the narrator represents and the modernist angst that the stranger feels.
In place of a dialogue over the course of only a few minutes between two strangers of opposing views, Wolfe switches to a third person narrative in “The Far and the Near,” chronicling one working class man as he finds and then loses a meaningful connection to society, which he claims is the “most extraordinary happiness he had ever known,” (“The Far and the Near” 1336.) This shift in structure builds upon themes of isolation and existential fulfillment first presented in “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn,” which leaves the stranger’s quest for fulfillment unresolved. In “The Far and the Near,” the train engineer believes he has managed to find true happiness in a relationship he forges with a mother and daughter over the span of twenty years, seemingly confirming the validity of the stranger’s quest to form a connection with the neighborhoods of Brooklyn. However, upon meeting the women, the engineer ultimately realizes this connection was entirely imagined and “that small good universe of hope’s desire,” (“The Far and the Near” 1338) that he had found is ruined.
Just as the controversial map in “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” is a symbol of the man’s desire to connect with society, this desire is symbolized through the train in “The Far and the Near,” which serves as the literal vessel that brings the women and the train engineer together. On a secondary level, the train can be interpreted as a symbol of the Industrial Revolution, which spurred society into the frantic, capitalistic pace that distresses modernists. The train brings the man and women together, causing him to believe “that he knew their lives completely,” (“The Far and the Near” 1337) but the connection it forges is false, merely a superficial connection between two strangers. Technological advances in the Industrial Revolution, including the automotive, resulted in increased communication and subsequent “connection” between people the world over, but it is possible that here Wolfe is commenting on the depth and validity of this connection. When the train passes by the quaint house in which the women live, the “heavy bellowing puffs of smoke” (“The Far and the Near” 1336) that it emits contrast against the picturesque description of the fruits, vegetables, and “white board…with green blinds,” (“The Far and the Near” 1336) of the area. The man seeks comfort and escape through that which the train brings him, but the train disrupts the natural beauty of the area, just as it killed numerous individuals in the four accidents the engineer witness (“The Far and the Near” 1336.)
Echoing the stranger and the narrator of “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn,” the engineer is similarly unable to define what it is that he finds in his connection with the women. The third person narrator uses vague diction to describe the engineer’s feelings- “something beautiful… something beyond all change and ruin…and something that would always be the same,” (“The Far and the Near” 1336) but there is a subtle narrative power just lines before this description that points out that the image of the “women waving to him became fixed in the mind of the engineer,” (“The Far and the Near” 1336) foreshadowing to the audience the illegitimacy of this connection, implied to be a mere fixation.
The impossibility of achieving existential fulfillment first posited by the narrator in “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” is exemplified by the crushing climax of “The Far and Near.” Upon attempting to solidify his connection with the little town and the women, the engineer feels acute isolation, referring to the experience twice as a dream, which he goes so far as to call “ugly” (“The Far and the Near” 1337.) He attempts to fight against this disillusionment, but the “act of hope and tenderness seem[s] shameful to him,” (“The Far and the Near” 1337,) again recalling the attempts of the narrator in the previous story to mock and discredit the optimism of the stranger as impertinent naivety.
The engineer’s conclusion, that “suddenly he knew that he was an only man…now sick with doubt and horror,” (“The Far and the Near” 1338) further confirms the previous narrator’s claim that it would take a lifetime to achieve existential happiness, “an’ even den [in death] yuh wouldn’t know it all,” (“The Far and the Near” 1338.) The engineer’s experience, however, does not indicate the worthlessness of an attempt to find existential happiness. If anything, it would seem that it successfully demonstrates that complex emotional connections can provide this happiness.