The obstacles and contradictory voices that Phoenix Jackson does not allow to deter her as she makes her long trek to Natchez serve to develop the illustration of the theme of endurance of the human spirit.
Eudora Welty herself has written of this story,
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.
Aptly named, Phoenix finds herself knocked down several times, and dumbfounded at times, but she rises (like an aged phoenix) and continues in her "habit of love" toward Natchez, Mississippi, where she can obtain medicine for her ailing grandson.
Nearly blind, Phoenix's poor perception emphasizes the intense physical and mental efforts she must make in order to complete her journey of love against the obstacles she encounters. But whenever she runs into things or falls, her inner voice encourages her to persevere. As she begins, Phoenix tells herself, "Now comes the trial."
- She must walk across a large log by placing her cane before her with each step. After succeeding in this venture, she compliments herself, "I wasn't as old as I thought."
- She must creep and crawl through a barbed-wire fence, "spreading her knees and stretching her fingers like a baby trying to climb steps," but she talks loudly to herself, much like a mother telling her child that she must not tear her dress, or worse, tear her arm.
- She challenges a buzzard flying over, "Who you watching?"
- She must move through cotton and corn fields that are so tall they form a maze for her.
- As she hears the field, she is confronted with "something tall, black, and skinny" that moves. Phoenix mistakes it for a man. Again, she challenges this foe, "...who you be the ghost of? For I have heard of nary death close by." But when she realizes that it is only a scarecrow, Phoenix scolds herself. Joking with the scarecrow she says, "Dance, old scarecrow...while I dancing with you." She fortifies herself with humor.
- As she traverses a quiet field, Phoenix encourages herself, "This the easy place. This the easy going."
- She falls into a ditch when a black dog startles her. As though in a dream Phoenix puts her hand out, hoping someone will pull her up, but there is no one but the dog "smiling at you" she realizes, and brings herself back to reality.
- When she is discovered by a young hunter with his own dog, he teases her, "Granny, what are you doing there?" But she replies that she is lying like a "June-bug" that cannot turn itself over. The man ridicules her when she tells him where she is headed because he thinks she is like many "old colored people" and merely going to town "to see Santa Claus."
- She asks the man to rid her of the black dog, so he sends his dog after it and the animals fight; the man shoots his gun to break them up. Then he returns, saying he would give her a dime if he had one (she has picked up a nickel he dropped). He suggests she go home, but Phoenix replies stalwartly, "I bound to go on my way, mister."
- Phoenix finally arrives in Natchez; however, because she "distrusts" her eyesight, she follows the pavement to the clinic.
Against all the intrusions of her imagination and poor eyesight, Phoenix Jackson's inner voice of love rights her upon the path to Natchez whenever she falls or becomes deluded because of her misinterpretation of an object. While she often scolds herself, Phoenix adds words of encouragement so that she will persevere. Truly, her heart controls these voices, directing Phoenix to her goal.