Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Gender Differences in Toomer's "Fern"

"When a woman seeks, you will have observed, her eyes deny. Fern's eyes desired nothing that you could give her; there was no reason why they should withhold. Men saw her eyes and fooled themselves. Fern's eyes said to them that she was easy. When she was young, a few men took her, but got no joy from it. And then, once done, they felt bound to her (quite unlike their hit and run with other girls), felt as though it would take them a lifetime to fulfill an obligation which they could find no name for. They became attached to her, and hungered after finding the barest trace of what she might desire. . . . As you know, men are apt to idolize or fear that which they cannot understand, especially if it be a woman. She did not deny them, yet the fact was that they were denied. A sort of superstition crept into their consciousness of her being somehow above them. Being above them meant that she was not to be approached by anyone. She became a virgin" (16).

The first two sentences of the passage seemed troubling at first. Toomer's narrator comments that women in search of something deny and that because Fern searches for nothing she does not deny. Within the narrator's logic, this seeming non-sequitur makes rhetorical sense. But I question why Fern is willing to give herself so freely when no one she encounters can give her what she is looking for. Indeed, the passage seems to mirror a similar theme in Karintha--that of a woman reaching sexual maturity too early because of an overly-sexual environment. Toomer's narrator provides an interesting commentary on men and sexuality. The first men who "took" Fern, similar to the "women" the narrator speaks of in the first sentence, were looking for something. And Fern didn't give it to them. However, Toomer's narrator leaves the issue of what these men were looking for ambiguous. Was it some kind of emotional connection? Some kind of validation of their sexual encounter? Some confirmation that Fern received something (physically or otherwise) that she hadn't received before?

The men feel "bound" to Fern, and they're bound to her because they don't quite understand her. It's clear that the men she encounters have no lack of sexual experience. Toomer's narrator refers to their "hit and runs" with other girls--a traffic metaphor that becomes quite comical in a sexual setting. But Fern is different from the other women. The men "idolize" and "fear" her because they do not understand her: "
She did not deny them, yet the fact was that they were denied." The passive construction of this sentence speaks to the men's fragmented experience. Something--not Fern--denies the men of the full emotional gratification of their encounter with her. She transcends her situation by denying. She becomes a "virgin" not in a literal sense, but in a metaphysical sense. She has not yet had an emotional sexual experience. A physical one, yes, but not an emotional one.


  1. I read the part about Fern's denying slightly different. I think Fern is denying trying to find love with any of the men around her but because "when a woman seeks, her eyes deny". But Fern's eyes "were strange eye's" and because of her strange, denying eyes men thought she was easy. Since she had denying eyes she should have been seeking something but she really was not. This apparently mystified the men and they stayed with her to find out what she was seeking even though she was not seeking anything and she did not want their company.

  2. I agree completely about how she becomes a virgin in the emotional sense. I think that emotional connection is what the men were seeking. While she never denied them physically, her detatchment from reality means that she never sees them the way they see her. The men are both emotionally and physically attracted to her, but physical gratification is leaves a void when the emotional does not accompany it. Of course this remained ambiguous to the men, who undoubtedly thought they would have achieved something great, only to be caught with the need to feel requited. Rather than comical, I see this hit and run metaphor as a very sad and honest interpretation of natural desire that turns to sorrow.

  3. You make the claim that Fern is the dominant power in the sexual experiences. This may be true for her sexual experiences, but for her personality, how its been shaped and how its been seen by the men in the community is completely outside of her power. It is because of the men that lust after her and because of how they view her that she is seen as having power. But because the men the ones bestowing the power on her does that not make them truly the ones that are in power over the entire situation? What if the men were to not view Fern as something to be coveted, would not then she have no power over them?

  4. I like your point about Fern being an emotional virgin. The men of her community regard women with indifference. They feel no attachment with their other "hit and runs." While men approach Fern with emotional indifference, she responds in kind. She does not deny them because she feels nothing for them. The end of the story shows a contrast to this. The narrator behaves kindly to Fern. He takes her on a walk and has a pleasant evening with her. This is Fern's first emotional experience with a man, breaking her of her emotional virginity.

  5. Michael's point is something I hadn't considered, that Fern's experience with the man is pleasant rather than horrible, and that that's what causes her "spring up" and beging singing. I was very perplexed by the line preceding Fern's strange actions, "I must have done something--what, I don't know, in the confusion of my emotion." What does this mean? The narrator must have been experiencing emotion. Does this mean Fern did too?

    Yet, the ending seems to signify that maybe she didn't have an emotional experience. "Nothing ever came to Fern, not even I." Not EVEN, the narrator. What do these lines mean?