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Sunday, February 7, 2010

“Fern” by Jean Toomer

One interesting theme I noticed throughout this story was the connection between Fern and the Virgin Mary. This of course seems quite odd on its surface, as the narrator tells us that “When she was young, a few men took her” (16). Clearly she was not an actual virgin, but the reverence and almost spiritual devotion she received from her lovers created a “superstition…of her being somehow above them”, such that “She became a virgin” (16). The gifts the men continually brought to her bring to mind the story of the Three Wise Men of Christmas, all of whom traveled great distances to bring gifts to Mary and her child. Her resemblance to a “Jewish cantor” with a “Semitic” nose also furthers this connection. The most direct link comes later in the story when the narrator goes for a walk with Fern. There he notices the spiritual power of the land and mentions that on this soil “A black woman once saw the mother of Christ and drew her in charcoal on the courthouse wall” (19).

So what is the significance of this linkage to Mary? Perhaps she stands as the ideal religion (or, more broadly defined, as the ideal worldview on life), one in which materialistic gifts are not needed. This may be what the narrator means when he tells us that “Fern’s eyes desired nothing you could give her” (16). True religion is not about money or favors, especially when they are given in exchange for exploitation. But given the fact that “men are apt to idolize that which they cannot understand, especially if it be a woman” (16), this degradation seems to have happened to Fern anyway (just as one might argue that Christianity has become too materialized). It is only when the narrator makes his innocent intentions know to Fern that she became “visible in a way [he’d] thought, but never seen” (19). He was only able to really connect with her when he wasn’t seeking to use her for his own purposes. Perhaps I am only making this connection because it reflects my own religious beliefs—so I welcome any comments or alternative ideas.

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