Summary

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

"Fern" by Jean Toomer is narrated by a white man from the Northern United States; he recalls a visit to Georgia when he met a young woman of mixed race named Fern. He describes her "strange eyes," into which everything else—her face, the countryside—seems to flow. He says that she has an "aquiline" nose and frequently compares the sight or sounds of her to the music of a "Jewish cantor" singing. He also describes her face as being of a "soft cream foam" color. From these descriptions, as well as her name (which is revealed to be Fernie May Rosen at the very end of the story), we can ascertain that her mother was likely a black woman, while her father was likely a white, Jewish man.

Ever since Fern was young, men have desired her. There seems something untouchable about her, though they do physically touch her. She is beautiful, but she also seems to harbor a buried sorrow or longing, and this makes men want to do something for her, to somehow please her with gifts or thoughtfulness that never seems to come to fruition. Soon, men begin to feel rejected by her, though she never sexually denies them. Men begin to feel that she is above them somehow and become protective of her, and in this way she becomes "a virgin" again.

The narrator first sees her, one day, sitting on her front porch, and the local man he's with says only that her name is Fern. After a time, he begins to wonder about her future, what it could be like if she came north, and so on. He, too, wants to do something for her. Though he knows she would not deny him sexually, he doesn't want sex from her. He eventually goes to see her, and her family thinks he just wants to sleep with her, like everyone else.

He asks her to take a walk with him, and he thinks that she understands his innocent intentions toward her. They walk through the dark together, and he finds himself holding her and she holds him with her eyes—eyes that seem to hold everything. She goes into a kind of trance, calling to Jesus and singing and falling to her knees. He rushes to her and she faints into his arms. Later, when the narrator leaves town, he sees her again, sitting on her porch as she always does. He could never figure out what to do for her, but he does tell us her name, giving her identity some longevity. Maybe this is all he can do: name this lonely woman, someone who would have been forgotten by the world were it not for this story.

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