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Monday, February 8, 2010

Jean Toomer's "Fern": Looks Can Be Deceiving

Throughout the four pages of Jean Toomer’s short story “Fern”, the word “eyes” (or the pronoun “they” as its antecedent) appears 20 times. 18 of those references speak of the mysterious girl Fern’s eyes. On a similar note, nine of the first 12 sentences of the first paragraph contain a description of her “eyes”, and 11 of the first 13 sentences of the second full paragraph contain a visual reference. These explicit yet incomplete descriptions hint at the speaker's implicit desire to understand Fern. To him, her eyes were “strange”; they “desired nothing that you could give her” yet gazed as “nothing was to be denied” (Toomer 16). He is curious about something he cannot understand. In this, he embodies his own characterization of men: a sex “apt to idolize or fear that which they cannot understand, especially if it be a woman” (16).

The speaker’s ignorance dooms him from the start. He can’t define the countryside. He could only describe Georgia by following her eyes, and in this he could not attach himself to the emotions behind her eyes. He misinterprets, assuming, like as the other men before him, that she needed the “something (the speaker) would do for her” (17). However, he restrains himself. In the field with Fern the speaker thinks freely, composed in a style unlike the rest of the story. Then he begins to think about her and what her eyes, noted as “unusually weird and open”, hinted now (19). Suddenly she sobs and sings “brokenly” (19).

What has the speaker done? The speaker has guessed about the character of Fern; in that he has judged her; in the judging he has interrupted her thought flow. For unlike him, she understands what she sees.

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