A phoenix is a mythical bird of great beauty fabled to live 500 or 600 years in the Arabian wilderness, to burn itself on a funeral pyre, and to rise from its ashes in the freshness of youth and live through another cycle of years: often an emblem of immortality or of reborn idealism or hope; a person or thing of peerless beauty or excellence; a person or thing that has become renewed or restored after suffering calamity or apparent annihilation; A person or thing regarded as uniquely remarkable in some respect.
Eudora Welty, in her character Phoenix Jackson, creates humanity’s counterpart of the phoenix firebird from oriental tradition (Wampler 4 June 2013). Although Phoenix Jackson can not lay claim to the immortality manifested by consuming fiery rebirths (as does the mythological bird), she possesses a fiery spirit and is consumed by love for her grandchild (Wampler 4 June 2013). Phoenix Jackson is wise, confident, fearless, tenacious, courageous, and has a clear goal in mind, which is to get her grandson’s medicine despite any obstacle that she may face.
Phoenix Jackson can be summed up in one word which is noble. All women should have the characteristics of Phoenix Jackson but some of those characteristics are being lost with the evolving society. Phoenix Jackson is an elderly African American woman walking into town on a cold winter morning to get medicine for her sick grandson. One aspect of Phoenix’s likeness to the mythical phoenix is their journey before they die. The Natchez Trace is an old highway that runs from Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez, Mississippi (Natchez Trace 27 May 2013).
By 1800 it was the busiest in the American South (Natchez Trace 27 May 2013). Phoenix lives “a way back off the Old Natchez Trace,” which indicates that the journey along with the fact that it is December is difficult for her (A Worn Path n. d. ). The obstacles she faces shows how deeply she cares and sacrifices for her grandson. At the end, when we are told she “began on the stairs, going down” it indicates that she is faced with a return journey as difficult as the one she has just completed (A Worn Path n. d. ).
She is also between 80-100 years old which further magnifies the intensity of her journey and the tragic situation of her grandson’s dependence on her. Like many people who have lived to be Ms. Jackson’s age, they gain strength from the years of trials and experiences in their lives. Ms. Jackson was unschooled, black and a woman who grew up during the depression and slavery years. This along with her many years on earth have made her cautious, strong willed and driven. 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” (A Worn Path n. d. ). Welty further describes Phoenix’s hair as being tied back in a “red rag” (A Worn Path n. d. ). 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. Furthermore, Phoenix’s eyes are said to be “blue with age” (A Worn Path n. d. ).
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” (A Worn Path n. d. ). All of these ties back in with the age the phoenix grows to. During the 1940’s women’s roles and expectations in society were changing rapidly.
Previously women had very little say in society and were stereotyped to stay home, have babies, to be a good home maker and wife. Modern day women have it so easy compared to women in the 1940’s. Women today have many career opportunities that were not open to women of the 20th century. In fact, the great majority of women were illiterate because it was assumed that they didn’t need to read if all the work they would do in life was raise children. Women of the 21st century have access to dozens of labor-saving devices that allow them to do housework in a fraction of the time that it took women in the olden days (Women’s Rights).
Women today use birth control to plan the size of their families. Centuries ago, it was not unheard of for women to have 11 children, and childbirth was the single highest cause of death for women in their 20s and 30 (Women’s Rights). Women in these times live under a justice system that tries to stop domestic violence, whereas women in 1808 were the property of their husbands, who could do whatever they liked without penalty (Women’s Rights). No policeman or judge would ever think a man had done wrong if he ‘had’ to beat his wife to get her to behave.
Modern women control their own finances. Women two hundred years ago were unable to sign for a bank loan without a male consenting to co-sign (Women’s Rights). They were judged incapable of owning property, even to the point that any property that they brought with them into their marriage or inherited from their father was immediately transferred to the safe keeping of their husbands (Women’s Rights). If he then turned it into cash and invested it in a business deal that went bad, the wife had no recourse to recover the money. Women were only given the vote in 1920 (Women’s Rights).
Before that, they had no say whatsoever in the laws that were passed that affected their lives. In a few ways, modern women have a harder time than women of yesteryear. Today some women move so far from home that their social and family networks break down. It appears that women living in the 21st century have it vastly easier than women of the 1940’s, although not in every case. Phoenix Jackson was a very rare woman during her time and she is unlike the modern women of today. Not many women today or even back then would do what she did for her grandson.
Most women are focused on their careers and would send their husband or nanny to get the medicine for their child. Phoenix Jackson sacrificed a lot because of the love she had for her grandson. Phoenix Jackson’s courage and tenacity are illustrated repeatedly as she faces crisis after crisis during her journey –a frozen day in December, animals in the thicket, hills, thorny bushes, creeks, barbed-wire fences, a com field maze, superstition, a hunter’s gun, a tower of steps, her own forgetfulness, and failing physical health–all obstacles to be overcome (Wampler 4 June 2013). And that’s what Phoenix Jackson does (Wampler 4 June 2013).
Courtney from Study Moose
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