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The Phoenix in Greek mythology is a bird-like creature that matures to an extreme age before it bursts into flames and is reborn from the ashes. As it matures and ages, its beauty and colors of red and gold intensify. The Phoenix always rises up again with its main characteristic of determination. Cleverly, Eudora Welty’s Phoenix Jackson, the protagonist in “A Worn Path,” parallels the mythological bird in description and actions. She is an unforgettable character.
Described by the author as elderly and small, Phoenix measures her steps carefully as she travels through the woods to complete her mission. She carries an umbrella as a cane and to ward off any creatures that might be in her path. Her black face is so wrinkled that it seems to follow a specific pattern and an undercoating of a golden color. Dressed in a neat and tidy fashion, her shoes are untied because she cannot tie them anymore. This is a woman of subtle grandeur that few would look deep enough to see.
Driven by one purpose-- her young grandson swallowed lye and damaged his throat. Medicine keeps him alive; this is the reason that Phoenix issues forth on this cold December morning to walk all the way to Natchez—he needs his medicine. Phoenix does not know how old she is, and she never went to school. Her knowledge is common sense, and it comes from her heart
Her path is hazardous, yet Phoenix has traveled it often. Her constant banter elicits a laugh from the reader, but to Phoenix, the dangers are real:
“Out of my way, all you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons and wild 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 in my direction. I got a long way.”
Phoenix must walk up and down hills, through thorn bushes, and crawl under barbed wired fences—all of which she has down many times before as she journeys along. Today, though everything seems a little harder:
Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far. Something takes hold of me on this hill and pleads that I should stay.
On this day, her trip is disturbed by a wild dog and a hunter. The hunter helps Phoenix who fell in a ditch avoiding the dog. Typical of the time and place, the hunter’s racist attitude is ignored by Phoenix. Unknowingly, he provides a nickel that it is important for her.
When Phoenix arrives at the doctor’s office, she encounters some of the same racial treatment. Today, Phoenix has to sit down. Her fatigue and age have made her unable to remember why she is there. After one of the nurses recognizes her and tells her to quit wasting their time, Phoenix asks for the important medicine. It is Christmas time, so one of the nurses gives her another nickel.
These two nickels are to Phoenix like getting the golden ring at the carnival. Phoenix will be able to buy her grandson a Christmas present. This makes her long trek more than worth its danger.
As she begins her long trip back, Phoenix does not mind. She knows that when she completes the walk on the worn path, the smiles that await her will make everything she endures worthwhile. Welty's Phoenix, as the one in Greek mythology, accomplished her mission and determines to hurry home.
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