An Analysis of Phoenix Jackson and the Symbolism of "A Worn Path"
Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path" is a story rich in mythological tales and figures, the most prominent being the legend of the phoenix. There are several symbols and references made during the course of the story to the legend of the phoenix. The phoenix, or bennu, comes from Egyptian mythology. As with most myths, there are variations on the myth, but the most common representation of the phoenix is a large scarlet and gold bird. The phoenix has been credited with amazing powers: the ability to appear and disappear in the blink of an eye and to heal, for example. Perhaps the most incredible power is the determination of the phoenix to travel to Heliopolis, the sun city, towards the end of its life. It is in Heliopolis that the phoenix's incredible life cycle starts over. It makes a nest and catches fire from the sun, bursting into flame. From the ashes, it is reborn, leaving its nest until the next time it returns - 1000 years later. From her name and appearance to her behavior and the symbolism running throughout the story, Phoenix Jackson is the embodiment of the phoenix.
Phoenix's name is quite obviously the biggest indication as to what she symbolizes. Many people in their lives have seen some representation of the phoenix bird, even if it was only Fawkes from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The phoenix conjures up feelings of hope, security, and promise. Its job is to protect, as Fawkes protected Harry. Throughout the story, Phoenix's mission is to obtain this medicine that will help protect her grandson.
Phoenix's appearance is yet another aspect of her likeness to the phoenix. At the beginning of the story, Phoenix is described as having a "golden color [running] underneath [her skin], and the two knobs of her cheeks were illuminated by a yellow burning under the dark" (Welty, par. 2). Welty further describes Phoenix's hair as being tied back in a "red rag" (Welty, par. 2). These images cannot be taken to be a mere coincident as the phoenix from the ancient Egyptian legend is described as having a beautiful red and gold plumage (Saunders, par. 6). Furthermore, Phoenix's eyes are said to be "blue with age" (Welty, par. 1). This description is the first of many that give an indication of her age. The phoenix is a bird that matures to an extreme age before it bursts into flame and is reborn from the ashes. Welty also employs some rather unusual imagery, in which she describes Phoenix's skin as having "a pattern all its own of numberless branching wrinkles as though a whole little tree stood in the middle of her forehead…" (Welty, par. 2). All of these ties back in with the age the phoenix grows to.
Even Phoenix's behavior appears to be indicative of the legend of the phoenix. There are several instances where she seems to give off an almost animalistic feel. In one such case, she is crossing the creek and she closes her eyes to cross it. Welty states that "Old Phoenix would have been lost if she had not distrusted her eyesight and depended on her feet to know where to take her" (Welty, par. 62). This phenomenon of simply knowing where to go has been found in several different types of animals (such as birds) and it rarely leads those animals astray. Furthermore, the phoenix has been known to make regular trips to the large city of Heliopolis to restore itself, bursting into flame and being reborn. In this story, Phoenix Jackson makes a regular trip to the large city of Natchez in order to restore life to her maimed grandson and in doing so, appears to also restore life to herself.
One of the main components of the legend of the phoenix is the extreme age the phoenix reaches and the references made to Phoenix's immortality. All throughout "A Worn Path," there are references to time and age. Phoenix's eyes were "blue with age" and she walks "slowly in the dark pine shadows, moving a little from side to side in her steps, with the balanced heaviness and lightness of a grandfather clock" (Welty, par. 1). Her skin is described as having "a pattern all its own of numberless branching wrinkles as though a whole little tree stood in the middle of her forehead…" (Welty, par. 2). These all establish that Phoenix is an elderly woman. The grandfather clock, however, with its swinging back and forth between heaviness and lightness, could be a reference to Phoenix's immortality and the switching between the lightness of life and the heaviness of death. Also, there is one line in the story – "Up above her was a tree in a pearly cloud of mistletoe" – that is also a veiled reference to immortality. The story takes place in the wintertime, which implies that the majority of Phoenix's surroundings are going to be brown and bare and covered in snow. However, the mistletoe remains green in the winter. All throughout winter's harsh temperatures and dreariness, the mistletoe survives quite vibrantly, therein lying its association with immortality (Ardolino, par. 6).
Another main recurring symbol is that of the birds. Phoenix and her grandson are continually likened to birds and birds make a constant appearance throughout the span of the story. At the beginning of the story, as Welty is describing Phoenix, she describes Phoenix as carrying "a thin, small cane made from an umbrella and [with which] she kept tapping the frozen earth in front of her. This made a grave and persistent noise in the still air that seemed meditative like the chirping of a solitary little bird" (Welty, par. 1). It is there that the first imagery of the bird comes into play. Don Donlan equates the chirping noise created by the cane to the song of the phoenix (par. 5). Later on in the story, Phoenix is talking about her grandson and says how he would "wear a little patch quilt and peep out holding his mouth open like a little bird" (Welty, par. 94). She's also very protective of him, like a mother bird watching over her young.
Phoenix's journey itself is in line with the legend of the phoenix. The phoenix makes a regular trip to Heliopolis, where it dies and is reborn. From the very beginning of her journey, references are made to the phoenix. It is in December when her journey takes place on a "bright frozen day in the early morning" (Welty, par. 1). Frank Ardolino comments on this opening line, stating that Phoenix "is equated with the morning, the rising sun, for she is the immortal bird which rises from its own ashes as the sun rises, and dies only to be reborn" (Ardolino, par. 2).
Later in the story, Phoenix arrives at the hospital and appears to undergo a change. She freezes up, and is unable to talk to anyone, including the attendant who is trying to ask her questions about her reason for coming. Welty says "there was a fixed and ceremonial stiffness over [Phoenix's] body" (Welty, par. 71). As the nurse joins in the discussion, she asks the question "Is he dead?" The nurse was referring to her grandson. These words appear to bring Phoenix back to life. Finally, Phoenix responds - "there was a flicker and then a flame of comprehension across her face, and she spoke" (Welty, par. 87). This behavior could possibly indicate the rebirth of the phoenix. Phoenix has finally caught flame and is ready to lead her new, rejuvenated life. The last line of the story – "Then her slow step began on the stairs, going down" (Welty, par. 104). – indicates the beginning of her new life.
Phoenix's journey is an unusual one. In today's society, it's rare to see someone care so deeply about another that he or she would be willing to go to such great lengths to protect said person. The concept is not a foreign one to the phoenix however, who travels great distances in order to heal individuals with its tears.
Everything about Phoenix is indicative of the legend of the phoenix. Phoenix's appearance, behavior, and the symbolism apparent throughout the story all point to the legend of the phoenix. Phoenix Jackson is a caring individual. She is determined and persevering. There is no end to the distance she would go to care for her maimed grandson. Her repeated journeys reflect the "lifetimes" she has spent going back and forth from her home to Natchez – "Heliopolis" – with one goal in mind: to help someone who can't help themselves. Phoenix's journey is a timeless and selfless act. For as long as her grandson needs her, she will be there, making her journey through the snow and rain, sleet and hail, braving bears and snakes and hunters and dogs because, like the phoenix would, she has chosen to protect and serve this young child.
Ardolino, Frank R. "Life Out of Death: Ancient Myth and Ritual in Welty's 'A Worn Path'." Notes on Mississippi Writers 9.1 (1976): 1-9. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Anna J. Sheets. Vol. 27. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998. Literature Resources from Gale. 14 Oct. 2010. Web.
Donlan, Don. "'A Worn Path': Immortality of Stereotype." English Journal 62.4 (Apr. 1973): 549-550. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Anna J. Sheets. Vol. 27. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998. Literature Resources from Gale. 18 Oct. 2010. Web.
Saunders, James Robert. "'A Worn Path': The Eternal Quest of Welty's Phoenix Jackson." The Southern Literary Journal 25.1 (Fall 1992): 62-73. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Anna J. Sheets. Vol. 27. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998. Literature Resources from Gale. 18 Oct. 2010. Web.
Welty, Eudora. "A Worn Path." Custom Literature Reader: ENC 1102. Eds. C.J. Baker, Roberta Sampere, and Christine Rakauskas. New York: McGraw Hill, 2008. 195-201. Print.