The setting of Welty's story comes in the early morning of the last month of the year, symbolically juxtaposing a beginning and an end. The morning is bright and conceals nothing, yet Phoenix moves in the shadows along the path "through the pinewoods," to create another contrast. Though the ground is frozen, Phoenix persistently taps her cane against it. One last contrast is found when Welty's narrator describes the "still air" broken by the "meditative" tapping of Phoenix's cane.
The setting foreshadows the difficulties Phoenix will encounter in her journey to get medicine for her grandson. The threats and condescension she will experience are fresh, like the morning, but old, like the end of the year, because racism, sexism, and ageism are perennial societal ills.
Phoenix walks in the shadows because society has put her there. An old black woman is of little value in her time and place. The bright morning symbolizes how openly and freely discrimination takes place.
Ultimately, Phoenix prevails in her quest to get the medicine her grandson needs. The tapping of her cane against the frozen ground symbolizes Phoenix's quiet persistence against the cold, solidified forces of discrimination that seek to impede her progress.
In the first paragraph, the setting is described as December, and "a bright frozen day in the early morning" and this depicts contrasting images of brightness and cold. It is not a harsh morning, it is a bright one. This foreshadows the coming of reality, because eventually Phoenix will engage in a journey that results in only spiritual knowledge.
Phoenix carries and umbrella, tapping it on the ground before her.
This made a grave and persistent noise in the still air, that seemed meditative like the chirping of a solitary little bird.
This image also foreshadows the ending by telling us that she is in a "meditative state" and her journey is more in her head than physical.
Traditionally, a quest is a journey in which a knight overcomes a series of obstacles in order to perform a prescribed feat. In what way is Phoenix’s journey a quest? What obstacles does she face? What feat must she perform?
Because Phoenix is old, she has trouble seeing. What things does she have difficulty seeing? How do her mistakes shed light on her character? How do they contribute to the impact of the story?
A phoenix is a mythical bird that would live for five hundred years, be consumed by fire, and then rise from its own ashes. In what way is the name of this creature appropriate for the main character of this story?