Saturday, February 5, 2011

"Fern" Searching for Racial Identity

Jean Toomer's short story "Fern" centers around a young, beautiful woman of unspecified mixed ethnicity whose deportment makes her enigmatic to both the people of her town and the many men she encounters. Although she assents to relations with most of the men who approach her-- and many do, drawn by her mysterious charm-- she never becomes attached to any of them and does not seem to be fulfilled in any way by these experiences. Many people, suitors and other acquaintances alike, are disoriented by her seemingly vacant gaze, her eyes exhibiting a distinct and conspicuous lack of desire. Her willingness to engage in relationships with so many men suggests that perhaps she is searching for something which she fails not only to find, but even to identify. If we were to infer from the sparse textual evidence as to the object of Fern's search, a likely candidate is some sort of source for her self-identity. The nail that sticks out of the porch post against which she leans, keeping her from resting her head, represents her lack of a clearly-defined heritage in which to find identity. Because of this ambiguity, she looks back and forth between various directions, shifting her gaze from the ground, to the horizon, to the sky, but never focusing on or finding worth in any of them. This parallels her search for an identity base, looking from one partial heritage to another but not feeling secure enough in any of them to embrace them.


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  2. The concept of Fern searching for an identity interests me--whether it be a racial identity or some other form. Gabe also posted about the nail in "Discomfort in 'Fern.'" I question if Fern does not remove the nail because she transcends her uncomfortable situation. Toomer's narrator notes that "Fern's eyes desired nothing that you could give her" (16). Thus, Fern does not need external validation. Perhaps the nail is just something that she learns to live with. Or perhaps the nail reminds her of what she cannot receive from the men. Once Fern finds someone who can give her what she is looking for (emotional companionship, etc.), maybe she'll remove the nail. It seems like Fern is not merely searching for her self-identity. If she were, she would not have the capacity or strength of will to deny the various men of whatever it is they seek. I contend that Fern looks toward the horizon in anticipation of the day when she will be able to seek something rather than seek nothing--as Toomer's narrator says she currently does.