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During the story, Phoenix interacts with each of these three characters, all of whom are white. Through these incidents, the racial elements in the story are developed. However, each time Phoenix interacts with the three, her own character is developed, as well, and we come to know and respect her even more.
The incident with the hunter and his dog shows how frail and vulnerable Phoenix really is as she makes the long journey into town on the cold December day. She falls and cannot right herself. If the hunter had not pulled her to her feet, she surely would have died there by the road. Phoenix risks her life each time she goes for the medicine for her grandson whom she loves so much. Also, she shows no fear of the hunter's gun, saying coolly that she had seen guns before. Her remark implies the racism she had encountered as a black person growing up in Mississippi long before racial justice became a social issue. The hunter's disrespectful attitude toward her also suggests the racism she still lives with.
Once in town, Phoenix stops a white woman on the street and asks her to tie Phoenix's shoes. A simple act, but a very telling one. Phoenix says having her shoes untied is all right for the country, but not for town. Phoenix is a lady and a proud one. The woman ties her shoes, but speaks to her in a condescending manner--another hint of the racism in the culture of the time.
Finally, when she arrives at the doctor's office, Phoenix deals first with the white receptionist and then the nurse. The receptionist is rude, condescending, and impatient, but Phoenix endures her hateful attitude because she needs the medicine. Phoenix will endure anything, even humiliation, for her grandson. Her devotion to him is beyond measure. Phoenix says nothing to the rude woman, but the muscle that twitches in her face suggests what she is feeling inside.
The nurse, unlike the receptionist, knows Phoenix and knows why she has come to town. It is through the nurse that we learn why Phoenix's little grandson needs the "soothing medicine." We learn of his suffering and understand why Phoenix risks everything to help ease his pain. In her conversation with the nurse, Phoenix speaks of the boy, showing her own love and tenderness.
She accepts some pennies from the nurse, even asking (an act of begging, one could say) for the exact amount she needs. And then we find out why she had stolen the nickel from the hunter earlier. That nickel and the pennies from the nurse will be enough to buy her grandson a toy. Phoenix is filled with joy as she imagines giving it to him.
Through her interactions with the hunter, the woman on the street, and the women in the office, we realize that Phoenix will beg, steal, endure humiliation, and even risk her own life for her grandson. She is a woman of great pride, courage, determination, and devotion. In her society, Phoenix is viewed as a poor, old black woman from the country, a person of no real significance. In fact, she is a truly fine and quite remarkable human being.
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