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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Narrator’s Last Wish: Mysticism and Race in Jean Toomer’s “Fern”

Jean Toomer’s short story “Fern” is one filled with vivid and descriptive images, while maintaining, many ambiguous and mysterious juxtapositions. The narrator of the story, along with Fern, presents himself as an indefinable character. Readers know nothing about this man and connect merely through his own descriptions. However, these descriptions are not physical in the sense readers can imagine the narrator’s body type or stature, but rather, a description of the emotional turmoil he experiences from Fern. In fact, due to the ambiguity surrounding the narrator, I believe, in actuality, that he is a white man. While speaking in first person, the narrator often fluctuates his tone and acts in third person. Stepping out, he says “It is black folks whom I have been talking about thus far” (Toomer, 17). Here the narrator distances himself from the actual situation. He refers to the blacks as the ‘others’ in a very conversational yet exclusive manner. This distance could be related to the North, or free-states, as he often references traveling with great ease. As there are several points of arguments throughout, it comes at the end of the story that the narrator is deemed as a white man. After the loss of Fern and feeling the heat of the town ‘watchmen’, the narrator again finds himself going back North. I feel that during times of segregation, only a white man, or man of prestige could travel and observe locations with such ease.

While part of the mysticism surrounding the narrator lies within his race, the other is pertinent to his pursuit of Fern. This pursuit is more like an obsession, as the narrator fails to obtain or fulfill his own vices. In referring to all mankind, the narrator says, “men are apt to idolize or fear that which they cannot understand, especially if it be a woman” (16). Like most men, the narrator is unable to reach out and connect with Fern. Aiding this notion is Fern’s image portrayed by the uncertain narrator. Again, as readers know very little about the narrator, we also have a limited and biased view of Fern. Readers perceive Fern through the images painted by the narrator. However, the narrator knows no more about Fern than any other man, and continually asks readers for, “Your thoughts can help me, and I would like to know” (18). Reaching out and asking for help, he is like any man who lusts after the one who is ‘out of his league’. Yet for the narrator, this lust is more than a physical attraction, but rather, an emotional distress felt at the hands of Fernie May Rosen.

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