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Phoenix Jackson is an unforgettable character that permeates Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path.” Her mission in life is to help her grandson be comfortable and happy despite his terrible injury from swallowing lye and damaging his throat.
On this cold, December morning, Phoenix, an elderly black woman, walks a path that she has traveled many times to get her grandson’s medicine. The journey has many obstacles that hinder her travel, yet Phoenix is undaunted by the difficulty of the trip.
Phoenix has her own issues. Aged, unable to see well, losing her memory, unsteady—nothing will deter Phoenix on her path to Natchez for the medicine. She carries an umbrella as a cane to shoo away any critters.
One of the primary themes of the story is perseverance. No word better describes Phoenix. She faces so many hardships as she treks along her path. Her walk to Natchez demonstrates her persistence in a hostile world. As she walks along, she often hears sounds in the bushes around her. If her walk was not so precarious, her banter would be humorous:
Out of my way, all you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons, and will animals!...Keep out from under these feet, little bobwhites…Keep the big wild hogs out of my path. Don’t let none of those come running my direction I go a long way.
Her path takes her up hills, woods, and then down the hills. Phoenix goes through thorn bushes and trembles as she finds her way. Her biggest fear is going across a creek with a log laid across it. Further on, she has to go under a barbed-wire fence.
After falling in a ditch, a hunter pulls her up and out. The hunter depicts the racist attitudes of the south. He tells Phoenix to go back home because he believes that the only reason that she is going to town is to see Santa Claus. The hunter refers to her as “grandma” which is the same as calling a black man “boy.” These are the attitudes that Phoenix must endure as she strives to get to the medicine for her grandson.
Finally, she arrives in town to get the much needed medicine. When she arrives at the doctor’s office, the nurse treats her with little patience. Telling her to hurry up and do what she needs to do. Sadly, Phoenix has to sit down and rest because she cannot remember why she is there. One of the nurses feels sorry for the old woman and gives her a nickel to spend.
Phoenix Jackson is a case study in determination. Her dogged resolution to travel her worn path to help her grandson speaks volumes about the quality of her character. Phoenix faces hardships every day. The evils of racism, abject poverty, old age, and the daily care of her beloved injured grandson—these make the daily life of this phenomenal woman.
Happiness to Phoenix comes from the two nickels that now holds in her hand. She will take her money and buy her grandson a present for Christmas. This will drive her back on the worn path to the smiles of her boy.
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