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Phoenix Jackson is an elderly black woman who makes a ritual journey through a rugged trail to get medicine for her sick grandson. She is old, probably older than 80, but refuses to give up her journey, regardless if it is challenging to her or not. Like the mythological bird, Phoenix has spiritual experiences when she is traveling in the forest.
"She imagines a boy bringing her a slice of cake but opens her eyes to find her hand in the air, grasping nothing. The terrain becomes more difficult, and at a certain point she thinks she sees a ghost, but it is only a scarecrow. Blaming the confusion on her age and the fact that her "senses is gone," she moves on."
"The phoenix was the bird in ancient mythology that rose from its own ashes every 500 years to begin a new life cycle."
"Phoenix's ritual journey into town symbolizes the continual rising-up of the old woman, like the bird she is allied with. Her description given at the beginning of the story also seems to suggest fire and life: "a golden color ran underneath, and the two knobs of her cheeks were illumined by a yellow burning under the dark. Under the red rag her hair came down on her neck in the frailest of ringlets, still black, and with an odor like copper."
Phoenix Jackson, the old Negro woman in Eudora Welty's short story, is tired and worn down both literally as an individual and metaphorically as a member of an oppressed race, By comparing her to the phoenix, the mythological bird which is known for its resilience and symbolic of immortality, Welty is making a statement on the strength and endurance of the Negro race in post-slavery America. Like the bird which will "rise from the ashes" every 500 years, black people in America will not be destroyed, nor their spirits defeated, no matter what trials they must face. Women like Phoenix Jackson, and their descendants, as represented by her grandson who "hold(s) his mouth open like a little bird", will survive, even in the face of hardship, poverty, and prejudice.
Other specific comparisons from the text include the following: "There was a fixed and ceremonial stiffness over her body" when Phoenix arrived at the doctor's office, paralleling the bird's preparation for death. Then after she is unable to answer several questions about her grandson's health, "At last there came a flicker and then a flame of comprehension across her face, and she spoke." Phoenix has been symbolically rejuvenated through this burning imagery as though the mythological bird self-ignited to re-create itself.
Probably the first and most prominent way in which Welty compares the woman Phoenix to the actual mythological bird is through the use of color. The bird is said to have beautiful red and gold feathers. Phoenix, the woman in the story had a red rag atop her head and her skin was described as having, "a golden color" running beneath it. The mythological bird will live and when it finally dies it burns its nest and out of the ashes rises a new bird, essentially becoming the same bird again. It is said to be almost invincible and able to regenerate itself. The woman and her grandson are like the Phoenix. She makes a journey through town for her grandson and her journey is hard especially now that she's so old, but it is almost as if this journey is the burning down and her arrival into town is the rising up.
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