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In “A Worn Path” Eudora Welty uses circumstances to reflect the character of Phoenix Jackson. Age, poor eyesight, senility, and lack of education are all obstacles that must be overcome.
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Phoenix Jackson resembles the mythological creature of the same name in actions, words, and description.
Clearly “A Worn Path” draws on the myth of the phoenix, the golden bird that periodically consumes itself in flames so that it, rising from the ashes, may be renewed. Phoenix Jackson renews her ancient body on each visit to the doctor’s remote office. The chief clues: the woman’s name (“Phoenix”), the story’s early description of her (her stick makes a sound “like the chirping of a solitary little bird”; “a golden color ran
underneath, and the two knobs of her cheeks were lluminated by a yellow burning under the dark”), a reference to cyclic time (“I bound to go to town, mister. The time come around”—and the time is Christmas, i.e., a time of renewal), her “ceremonial stiffness” in the doctor’s office, and finally, the words “Phoenix rose carefully.”
The myth is wonderfully supported by details, details that are strictly irrelevant (e.g., Phoenix’s deception of the hunter, which nets her a nickel, and her cadging of a nickel’s worth of pennies from the nurse) but that make the character unsentimental and thoroughly convincing.
The journey to Natchez becomes a psychological necessity for Phoenix, her only way of coping with her loss and her isolation, having at first made the journey to save the life of her grandson, she now follows the worn path each Christmas season to save herself.
Eudora Welty's story reminds me a lot of some of William Faulkner's work. Both of these Southern writers created characters who occupy the lowest rungs in their society, yet demonstrate the greatest kind of courage and humanity. The mother and two brothers in Faulkner's story, "Two Soldiers," are these kind of Southerners, and Phoenix is another.
Phoenix is old, poor, female, and black--making her the least influential or valued in her society. As the story develops, however, Phoenix's courage, determination, unselfishness, and depth of love and devotion are revealed. In writing a character analysis of Phoenix, you might consider the pure humanity found in this seemingly unlikely heroine. Phoenix embodies the very best in the human spirit.
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