Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The deceptively simple story line of Jean Toomer’s “Fern” is developed within a carefully crafted, theologically symbolic description of a young Georgia woman with a Jewish name and a blended cultural heritage. Fern is aloof, masking a deep need for spiritual renewal even as she gives herself to a stream of men who are “everlastingly bringing their bodies to her.” From the outset it is clear that she is not merely a prostitute, or just another young black woman trapped in a racially discriminatory southern city. Like the narrator, she is more than she appears, and at times she seems aware that more than their own personal liberation is at stake in their relationship.

The narrator’s long exposition on Fern’s character, personality, and appearance is essential to the story. Her full name is Fernie May Rosen, a Jewish name in a community in which most African American names are typically Anglo-Saxon. The narrator describes her nose as “aquiline, Semitic.” She reminds him of a Jewish cantor whose woeful singing can touch you and make “your own sorrow seem trivial compared with his.”

An outgrowth of Toomer’s experience as a teacher in Georgia in 1921, “Fern” is a symbolic story with powerful social and theological implications. From the early period of Toomer’s writing, “Fern” hints of the half-hidden southern image that men are hopelessly corrupt, and that women are the potential source of salvation who carry inside them the seeds of deliverance. Even as men take Fern’s body, they want to find deeper communion with her, to give her something more than their bodies. That Fern herself is a troubled, lost soul intensifies their elusive quest. Southern men, and perhaps men everywhere, want to be viewed as...

(The entire section is 718 words.)