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Phoenix is our main character and heroine, though she doesn't fit the usual description. She's a small, old, African American woman who walks around with an apron made of sugar sacks, a cane made from an umbrella, and shoe laces dragging.
But don't be fooled. When it comes to Phoenix, it's a don't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover kind of situation. Despite her ragged appearance, Phoenix is on a significant journey to soothe the suffering of a loved one, and there is a wise and immortal quality about her. Heavy stuff, eh? Welty was definitely packing a punch when she gave us Ms. Jackson.
A lot. This story's main character has a unique name—Phoenix Jackson—and this isn't an accident on Welty's part.
Let's start with Phoenix. The fact that Phoenix is a city in Arizona doesn't have anything to do with our leading lady, but the fact that a phoenix is a mythological bird does. Harry Potter fans likely need no explanation of what a phoenix is, but here's the rundown for the rest of us.
In mythology, the phoenix is a large, colorful bird that lives for centuries or even millennia. When it dies, in a fire that it creates itself, it rises anew from the ashes. For this reason in particular, the phoenix is a revered creature, often associated with time, immortality, rebirth/resurrection, and the circle of life.
Phoenix the woman has many similarities to phoenix the mighty bird. There are frequent references to time and age in the story. For instance, Welty uses the metaphor of a pendulum's motion in a grandfather clock to capture the way Phoenix moves (1), and Phoenix often refers to how old she is, even going so far as to say, "I the oldest people I ever know" (26). Statements like this give her a kind of immortal feel, like she's been around long enough to know the secrets of the universe and won't be bowing out any time soon.
There are also plenty of images of both life (such as scurrying animals and moments of youthful vigor from Phoenix) and death (such as dead trees and fields) in the story to demonstrate that life is a continuous cycle, and the journey Phoenix is on is a cycle as well. She completes the journey only to rise once more and travel to the city all over again the next time her grandson needs the medicine.
Phoenix even has some physical qualities similar to those of the bird. No, she doesn't have wings and a beak, but she does have a red rag tied over her hair, and Welty uses the words "golden" and "yellow" to describe inflections in the color of her skin (1). Red and gold are colors often associated with the feathered phoenix. Coincidence? We think not.
The Jackson part of Phoenix's name doesn't seem as unique as the first part. But even though her last name is much more common, it still has special significance for Welty. See, not only is Jackson the capital of Mississippi, it is the city in which Welty was born and died and lived much of her life. It makes sense then that a story set in Mississippi that's so concerned with the issues people in the state face would use the state's capital as the main character's last name.
However, the story itself does not take place in Jackson, which has led many people who study this story to an alternate theory on the significance of the last name. These critics point out that Jackson was the last name of a doctor, Chevalier Jackson, who treated and advocated for those who suffered from lye poisoning, many of whom were poor children.
It is very possible that Phoenix's last name pays homage to this man, and that the shared last name establishes a connection between Phoenix's quest to ease her grandson's suffering from lye poisoning with Dr. Chevalier Jackson's quest to treat lye poisoning among the rural poor and prevent future cases. (Want to read more about lye poisoning in the early 20th century and Dr. Jackson's work? We've got you covered.)
"A Worn Path" deals with many of the big -isms: racism, sexism, ageism, and classism. Phoenix is black during a time when it is considered better to be white. She's a woman in a time when it is considered better to be a man. She's old in a society that values youth. She's poor in a culture where money is an indicator of power and a practical necessity. All the –ism based odds are stacked against her.
Phoenix is a strong character not just because she loves her grandson so deeply, but because she carries on in the face of these –isms, knowing full well that the world doesn't learn toward her favor. Through Phoenix's character, the story sheds light on unjust power structures and broken social institutions that oppress people like Phoenix and her grandson. In her willingness to repeatedly make the same difficult trip, it's clear Phoenix is a hardworking and caring person—and yet society treats her like dirt.
Even with all that we know about Phoenix, we hardly know her at all. Say what? What we mean by this is that we have very little information about the biographical details of her life. We don't know exactly where her home is or what it looks like. We don't know what has happened to other members of her family. We don't know anything about friends or relationships that she might have beyond her grandson—and even then, we only know she has one, nothing more. We don't know her birthday, her favorite food, or her favorite color.
When the story leaves places open for Phoenix to fill in these kinds of details, she only provides vague, philosophical sounding jibber jabber. For example, when the hunter asks Phoenix how old she is, she responds by saying, "There is no telling, mister […] no telling" (48). See what we mean? She's asked, but when she answers, we're pretty much none the wiser.
In this particular instance, her vagueness is at least partially due to the fact that birth records were not always accurately kept back in the day, particularly among marginalized populations. But ambiguous answers like the one Phoenix gives when asked her age also contribute to the function of her character. She represents a lot of social, economic, and political issues in the South at the time of the story's publication, and the lack of concrete details helps us to see Phoenix less as an individual and more as a representative. Because we don't get the specifics of her individual life, it's easier to see her as a symbol for the condition of many.
Don't get us wrong—Phoenix is definitely one unique lady, but the problems she faces are problems that Welty saw often in her rural Mississippi experience.
One of the biggest questions that students, teachers, and the smarty-pants of the literary world debate is whether or not Phoenix is a senile, deluded old woman. Know why they debate that? Get ready for a whopper: Some people who read and study this story question whether Phoenix's grandson is alive or not. Whoa.
This question comes up because of the very weird thing that happens when Phoenix gets to the doctor's office: She forgets why she went there. Which is definitely odd. After traveling so far for her grandson, why does Phoenix forget him? There's no clear answer to this one, which is either super awesome is you like to analyze things or super annoying if you prefer facts straight up.
There are a couple theories flying around. One is that Phoenix is so exhausted from her trip that she temporarily has trouble with her memory. Another is way more macabre, like a twist in an Alfred Hitchcock movie. This theory contends that the grandson has already died and that Phoenix, locked in a state of delusion and denial, has been on her futile, cyclical journey for so long that she's not even really conscious of it anymore.
If the grandson is alive, then this is a story of unbridled determination and hope for the sake of a loved one, an important story no doubt, though relatively straightforward. If he has died, the story is still one of unbridled determination and hope for the sake of a loved one, but there is an added layer of complexity—the psychological trauma of losing a loved one and the difficulty of processing that loss. Which is also an important story.
Eudora Welty received this question so many times that she finally addressed it point blank. She said that it doesn't matter whether Phoenix's grandson is alive or dead, that the story would have the same plot regardless. However, she thought of the boy as alive. Because so many people have interpreted the story differently, though, we wanted to throw the dead-grandson theory into the mix, too.
What do you think? Are there any clues that make you think Phoenix's grandson has died? Do there seem to be other possible explanations for why Phoenix forgets her grandson when she gets to town? Does it even matter? Over to you, Shmoopers.