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Welty was asked by a student if the grandson was actually still alive in the story. The narrator does not address, at the end of the story, whether or not the child lives; rather, Phoenix receives the coins and heads back to him. Welty’s response pertains to the symbolism carried by Phoenix’s name and how this, in turn, pertains to a theme of the story. “Phoenix” refers to the mythological bird that defies mortality by rising from death and living again: it is immortal. Similarly, Phoenix’s spirit is immortal—she rises above the difficulties of her life, including the racism and the degradation that comes from it. Even if her grandson dies, the point is that the spirit of perseverance and love that she embodies will not disappear; it might be reduced to ashes by this even or that, but it will live again.
The journey/quest is to make it to town to obtain medication for her grandson's throat. It was damaged when he swallowed lye. The trip to town creates many obstacles for the elderly woman. Among them are her age and mobility, her race-which is African American, her eyesight, and the terrain she must traverse to get to town. Phoenix uses a cane and is brushed with thorns, and her age and lack of agility lead her to fall into a ditch. She encounters those who demean her because of her race.
Readers and critics alike theorize whether the grandson is alive or dead. The fact he is never seen leads some to ask. The character of Phoenix and the author herself claim she is.
Themes in the novel include racism, which is apparent with the hunter, who helps her out of the ditch, yet attempts to intimidate her with the gun. The nurse who calls her "aunt" and treats her dismissively, and the woman who ties her shoe and calls her granny. The terms are meant to be condescending.
Another theme is duty. Phoenix must fulfill her duty to her grandson to get his medicine, no matter how difficult it is. The doctor's office is duty-bound to supply her with medication for as long as she makes the trip to obtain it.
Eudora Welty, the author, seems to intentionally left whether the grandson is alive or dead ambiguous, meaning that one could interpret the story either way. Some things that lead the reader to think he is dead might be the things the nurse says at the clinic, such as telling her co-worker that the Dr. said to just keep giving her the medicine as long as she comes, which might be a way of making a senile old lady who can't remember or accept that her grandson is dead happy. The nurse also asks her, "Is he dead yet?" This question may imply that the staff at the clinic is waiting for Phoenix to come to grips with the situation and accept the truth. Of course the fact that the grandon drank lye and that the clinic is so far away might indicate that he died before she could get help, and she keeps reliving the her attempt to get medicine.
Welty's statement simply means that the focus of the story should not be the grandson, but Phoenix. Regardless of the interpretation about his death, Phoenix's love for him never dies. She makes this arduous journey over and over because her love for her grandson is so deep. The focus should be on her and what her repeated attempts say about her.
The question of whether Phoenix's grandson is alive is an intriguing one, and Welty's response is important. Consider Phoenix's name, which is an allusion to the phoenix of legendary fame. This mythical bird, only one of which exists at a time, self-ignites at the end of its life and burns. From the ashes a new phoenix emerges.
In the story, Phoenix Jackson is an old woman whose physical description, including the red rag on her head, also associates her with the bird. In the doctor's office as she is repeatedly asked how her grandson is doing, Phoenix becomes confused until "a flicker and then a flame of recognition" comes over her. Symbolically, at this moment Phoenix is self-igniting, and immediately afterward she is able to answer the questions. In effect, coming to the doctor's office to obtain medicine for her grandson is a rejuvenating experience for her. She travels "a worn path" because she's made the trip many times; she and her grandson, she says, "are the only two left in the world." Without him, she would be alone. Phoenix must continue to make the trip to stay alive herself; she must believe her grandson is alive.
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The characterization of Phoenixbegins with her name. In mythology, the phoenix is a bird that symbolizes immortality—eternally rising above death, defeating it by resuming a new life. In Egypt, it was often associated with royalty. This is an apt name for the character in the short story for she too has a strength and dignity about her that enables her to arise from the difficulties of life imposed on her by racism in order to obtain care for her grandson. Accomplishing this satisfies her need to love and care for this boy, and accomplishing this also transmits this love and care to a new generation, enabling it to rise above racism as well. In this way, she carries two important themes of the story: first, the ugliness of racism that tries to defeat this strong woman, and second, the power of love seen in her determination to do everything she can to obtain help for her grandson. Love rises above the racism and in the long run will survive.
I think what Welty meant by answering "Phoenix is alive" is that the grandson is alive only in her memory. Here are some reasons why:
- We don't know how old the grandson is or how long Phoenix has been getting medicine for him. The title, however, tells us that she has been walking this path a very long time, so long that she can close her eyes to cross the log on the creek.
- Another thing we need to consider is Phoenix's age. When she's talking to the woman at the clinic, she tells her that she was too old to go to school "after the Surrender," meaning 1865. She has to be at least in her 80's, so unless he's a great-great-grandson, she's too old to have a "little grandson."
- The nurse says that the doctor allows Phoenix to have the medicine as long as she will come and get it. If she had a grandson in dire need of medicine, surely someone would make sure he got it. Could it be that this "medicine" is just flavored water?
- And something Phoenix toward the end of the story: "He got a sweet look. He going to last....I remembers so plain now. I not going to forget him again, no, the whole enduring time."
Did she have a grandson? Yes, I believe she did. I believe also that she used to have to get medicine for his throat after he drank lye. But is he still alive? Of course he is, as long as somebody remembers him.
Mrs. Welty is trying to tell the audience to concentrate on Phoenix story and the obstacles she faces throughout the story, not on her grandson's life.
Whether her grandson is alive or not doesn't matter. Phoenix must make the journey because it is what's keeping her alive. She sees it as her destiny and it is a pattern and a path she knows well. Despite her skeptical reception at the doctor's office, she will continue making this trip until she dies.
I think we need to be aware of the metaphorical importance of the journey and the various obstacles that Phoenix faces. There is a definite sense in which we can view this journey both in a literal and a symbolic level, as Phoenix Jackson shows that she has the resolute attitude and grim determination necessary to face all of the various obstacles she must endure and overcome to reach her goal.
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