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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438

There is something special about Fern. Certainly, she is beautiful with her "aquiline" nose and the "creamy brown" of her skin. But there is something else, too, something not entirely tangible, that cannot really be explained. The narrator says,

If you have heard a Jewish cantor sing, if he has touched you and made your own sorrow seem trivial when compared with his, you will know my feeling when I follow the curves of her profile, like mobile rivers, to their common delta.

Thus, there is something incredibly sorrowful about Fern, about the way she looks and the impression that she gives to others. Her face is described both as something touched by the divine and also as having features that resemble her heritage. A cantor is the person who chants worship during a Jewish religious ceremony. Without such a context or intention, Fern has such an effect on the narrator, on many men in fact, impressing him with a quiet, hidden sense of anguish. It makes the men who sleep with her protective of her. They begin to hold her up and to think of her as somehow better than they are themselves. The narrator explains this, saying,

As you know, men are apt to idolize or fear that which they cannot understand, especially if it be a woman.

Certainly, no one really seems to understand Fern. Though she works as a prostitute, she is soon idolized as a result of her deep intangible sorrow, with which she impresses everyone she meets. She becomes a virgin again, according to the speaker, and she is put on a pedestal, like some kind of faultless Madonna, an irony for sure given her lengthy sexual history. However, no one can understand her, and so this is what happens.

One night, with the narrator, Fern seems to have a mystical experience, to go in to a kind of divine ecstasy, like Saint Teresa, or a deep trance, like Saint Bernadette. She is on her knees, swaying and singing and unaware of the physical world around her. The narrator explains,

When one is on the soil of one's ancestors, most anything can come to one . . . .

Then she loses consciousness in the narrator's arms. After this, she seems to return to her reveries, so lost in thought that it does not occur to her to move a nail that is in her way. She is something between human and divine, somehow sexual and virginal at the same time, somewhere between black and white, somewhere between Jew and Gentile, and between past and present. Her presence is hopeful but remote at the same time.

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