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Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Unattainable Other: Whiteness and Desire in Jean Toomer's "Fern"

Descriptions of Fern's physical aspects are somewhat limited in the story. With the exception of numerous references to the poignant image of her eyes, the narrator limits our perception of Fern by concentrating on the idiosyncrasies which keep her aloof from the men who seek her. While detailed characterization of Fern is limited, an important aspect to note is her obviously mixed racial heritage. Her face is described as "soft cream foam," and image which brings to mind subtle lightness tinged with brown. This aspect of Fern is critical in examining this piece through a racial lens. When the narrator discusses men and their preoccupation with possessing and protecting Fern, he says "it is black folks whom I have been talking about thus far" (Toomer, 17). The fact that the narrator centers his initial observations on the reactions of black men connotes an underlying desire for the acquisition of the white female other. Fern is simultaneously among the black community and apart from it. Her skin color makes her desirable to black men in so far as she is able to fulfill the external facade of whiteness. Considering the historical context of this piece, it makes sense that Fern's race would make her more desirable to one specific race. For, as the narrator puts it: "What white men thought of Fern I can arrive at only by analogy. They let her alone" (17). The appeal of Fern to black men lies not only in her emotional separation from earthly concerns, but also in the racial separation brought about by her whiteness.

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