Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
In her essay “Is Phoenix Jackson’s Grandson Really Dead?” Eudora Welty speaks of “the deep-grained habit of love” that is Phoenix’s motive for her trip: “The habit of love cuts through confusion and stumbles or contrives its way out of difficulty, it remembers the way even when it forgets, for a dumbfounded moment, its reason for being.” The central motive of Phoenix’s quest is true charity, the “deep-grained habit of love” for her grandson. This motive accounts for her apparent lapses in confiscating the lost nickel and in specifying how much money she would like when offered pennies for Christmas. Love also accounts for Phoenix’s courage, making it natural and unconscious, simply necessary rather than extraordinary.
Phoenix’s courage and true charity are underlined by her encounters with the young hunter and the clinic employees. When the hunter belittles her and boasts of himself because he walks as far as she does when he hunts little birds, with which Phoenix compares her grandson, because he can order his dog to drive off the strange dog that has frightened her, and because he has a gun he can point at her, the reader sees the truer courage of her heart—not merely in her lack of fear of the gun but in her whole journey as well. The hunter’s courage comes from his tools and youthful folly, Phoenix’s from her love. When the clinic employees remind her twice that hers is a charity case, expecting gratitude for what they give, they contrast sharply with Phoenix who dreams of and delights in bringing her grandson comfort and joy. In approaching true charity, in which love rather than self-praise is the motive, Phoenix achieves true courage. In Phoenix, Welty presents an ideal of goodness.