How does the story "A Worn Path" prove the unconscious heroism of Phoenix Jackson?

"A Worn Path” proves the unconscious heroism of Phoenix Jackson by showing how she is similar to the mythological creature for whom she is named. The phoenix burns up and then is reborn from the ashes, and Phoenix is characterized by an internal fire, her love for her grandson, that seems to keep her alive. She feels no concern for her own safety, and she repeatedly makes the long journey to Natchez for his medicine despite her age and frailty.

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A hero is a person who acts with courage. In the Jungian archetypes that are often expressed through literature, heroism is facing and overcoming one's unconscious fears. It is characterized by risk-taking and embarking on a journey that, no matter how treacherous, leads to growth in self confidence.

Although in Jungian archetypes, the hero is usually male, we see in Welty's story that heroism is embodied in a small, elderly Black woman. What might be an easy walk through the woods to town for many people is for Phoenix Jackson a heroic journey in which she must fight her demons of poor eyesight, frailty, age, and lack of balance. She does so fearlessly. She shows her heroism as she crosses a creek by balancing on a log, as she untangles her clothes from thorns without tearing them, and as she finds a way to stand back up when she falls.

Phoenix, like her namesake mythological bird, won't let herself be killed or stopped. Failure to arrive in town is not an option that she entertains. Her heroism is unconscious because she thinks of herself as simply achieving the goal of getting medicine for her grandson. However, we might see her as heroic because of what she overcomes to achieve her goals and because of her determination not to let obstacles get in her way.

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Early in the story, we learn that Phoenix Jackson is “very old and small,” and that she doesn’t see well: “Her eyes are blue with age,” the narrator says, implying perhaps that she has cataracts. Despite her “numberless […] wrinkles,” however, Phoenix’s cheeks are “illumined by a yellow burning under the dark,” and there is a golden color that runs underneath her forehead and cheeks. Figuratively, then, she seems to embody her name—Phoenix—as she is like a creature who burns and yet lives, inexplicably and magically renewing itself so that its life can go on.

When the nurses at the doctor’s office in Natchez speak to Phoenix about her grandson, “there came a flicker and then a flame of comprehension across her face,” another reference to Phoenix’s internal fire. She talks about her grandson, whose medicine she has made this journey to retrieve, and how she and he are “the only two left in the world” and how he has no one else but her to care for him. Though she had forgotten for a moment why she was there, once Phoenix remembers her grandson’s lye-burned throat and his need for the “soothing-medicine,” she declares that she is “not going to forget him again.” Perhaps without him to look after, she would die, but he provides her with the figurative fire that she needs to continue to live, and her dedication to him proves her unconscious heroism.

Despite her age and frailty, Phoenix Jackson seems to will herself to stay alive and to keep going to retrieve that medicine because the “doctor said as long as [she comes] to get it, [she can] have it.” Her...

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grandson does “suffer,” Phoenix says, but he is still a “sweet” child. Her devotion to him compels her to throw caution to the wind and make the journey to Natchez again and again, despite her age. She seems unaware that she is doing something extraordinary, and her care for her grandson is clearly heroic.

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Phoenix is described as being "very old and small and she walked slowly." Everything about this description suggests a very weak person. However, she manages to overcome any obstacle that comes her way. She is meek but resourceful. She manages to steal a nickel from the hunter. She seems weak but she is courageous. She stares down the barrel of the hunter's gun showing that she is unafraid. When she is presented with a problem, she finds a solution. The thorn catches her dress and she is able to free herself. She falls down and, somehow, she doesn't break any bones. She needs her shoe tied and is able to get help from a woman in town. In the end, she retrieves the medicine. In summary, she succeeds time and again. In terms of making this journey, she has proven to be unstoppable, even though she is a frail, old woman.

A journey is a classic narrative structure for a hero. Notable heroes that employ this literary element are Odysseus in The Odyssey, Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, and Aeneas in The Aeneid. Phoenix makes a journey as well and that journey forms "a worn path." The gesture (the fact that she is seeking medication for her grandson) is generous and heroic as well. So, her perseverance is heroic but the meaning behind her efforts (caring for her grandson) is admirable as well. 

Phoenix also never claims to be heroic. The only compliment she gives herself is "I wasn't as old as I thought." She doesn't consider herself to be a hero. She simply does what needs to be done. Therefore, she is not conscious of the notion that her efforts are heroic. This humility actually makes her seem even more heroic. 

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In "A Worn Path," how does Phoenix Jackson demonstrate unconscious heroism?

Phoenix does demonstrate tremendous heroism without being aware of it. She doesn't think of herself as being brave. She is just doing what she must do to take care of her little grandson, and she has done it many times. Her path to town is "worn," suggesting that she has traveled it many times.

Phoenix faces great danger making her trip to town. She is very old and frail and almost blind. The weather is cold because it is December, hard winter. Phoenix climbs a hill, makes her way through briars, climbs through a fence, and crosses a stream by walking on a log fallen over the water. If she had fallen into the stream, she would have frozen to death. When she falls in a ditch after the hunter's dog comes after her, the hunter has to help her up. She cannot get to her feet by herself and would have died there without his help.

When Phoenix gets to town, she is treated very hatefully by one of the women in the doctor's office. Phoenix swallows her pride and ignores the woman's insults so that she can get what she came for--her grandson's medicine. That took courage, also. Phoenix is very heroic; she risks her life and sacrifices her pride for one she loves.

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