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Monday, February 8, 2010

Just Out of Reach: Understanding and Reliability in Jean Toomer's "Fern"

I found our discussion of Fern in class to be enlightening to say the least. The text itself is deep and open to myriad interpretations, much like the rest of Cane. One point that interested me and sparked further speculation was our discussion of the reliability and objectivity of the narrator. While the description of Fern as a character is extensive (it constitutes a bulk of the text), most of the characterization occurs in the form of observations by the narrator. He describes the reaction of men towards her, saying "Fern's eyes said to them that she was easy" (Toomer, 16). This assertion alone shows the multiple perspectives which combine to create a picture of the character Fern. The narrator, who we know to be a man who had a personal experience with Fern, describes his observations of men making speculative assumptions as to the nature of this woman. The possibility for subjective inaccuracy here is staggering. As a reader, we are denied the opportunity to view Fern as she truly is. Instead, we are presented with a description which is an amalgamation of different beliefs and perspectives. It is therefore difficult to take the narrator's description of Fern as truth, for he is as guilty of bias as the men who crowd Fern's doorstep.

It is interesting that Fern is characterized primarily as a woman who always seems out of reach. Men may possess her physically, but Fern's emotional detachment from worldly desire creates an impassable distance between her and the men in the story. This contributes to the narrator's lack of insight. As much as he may consider his experiences with Fern to be concrete evidence which defines the woman, he is hardly closer to knowing her at the end than any other man who shared her bed for a night. Despite knowing her name, the narrator remains distanced from Fern. This characterization detracts from the reliability of the narrator. We cannot fully trust his depiction because he never comes to understand the true nature of Fern. He remains a man who is writing to men about a woman. The inherent bias within the narration fails to lend authenticity to the author's portrayal.

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