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Annette Kersting

Beth Powell

English 102

April 6, 2011

In “A Worn Path”, the name Phoenix Jackson is an introduction to both the protagonist

and her character. Eudora Welty infuses her description of Phoenix Jackson with references to

the image of a mythical phoenix. The mythical bird phoenix and Phoenix Jackson share three

characteristics: resilience, courage to heal and resurrection through fire. .

Ovid offers this description of the phoenix; "They have also another sacred bird called

the phoenix … The plumage is partly red, partly golden, while the general make and size are

almost exactly that of the eagle. (History of Herodotus)1 Phoenix Jackson and the mythical

phoenix share a physical likeness. Phoenix “has her head tied in a red rag” (paragraph1, p. 95)

and her image includes “skin…a golden color ran underneath” (paragraph 2, p. 95). The tapping

of her only companion, an umbrella cane, is illustrated as “meditative like the chirping of a

solitary little bird.” (paragraph 1, p. 95) This reinforces the bird-like image of Phoenix Jackson.

The characteristic of resilience can be seen in the enduring longevity of the phoenix; most

accounts ascribe 500 years to its lifespan. Phoenix Jackson shows both the attribute of resilience

and that of physical longevity. Her age is not given numerically; however, we are immediately

told “Her eyes were blue with age” (paragraph 1, p. 95) and “Her skin had a pattern all its own of

numberless wrinkles” (paragraph 2, p. 95). The hunter presumes “you must be a hundred years

, Herodotus, Histories 2. 73 (trans. Godley) (Greek historian C5th B.C.)


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old” (paragraph 59, p. 98) and the lady in town addresses her as “Grandma” (paragraph 65, p.

98) reinforcing the aged and ageless image.

The courage with which she embarks on this journey and the dauntless fortitude she

presents in the face of numerous obstacles are testament to her resilient character. Phoenix

battles weariness as she climbs the first hill: “Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get

this far” (paragraph 5, p. 96). She gives the hill a ‘severe look’ only when she has conquered it.

Yet it is in her constitution to persist. The hunter on the road tried to dissuade Phoenix from her

journey; he belittles her saying “Why that’s too far…Now you go home granny”. (paragraph 45,

p. 97). Phoenix, disregarding the hunters disparaging tone, replied, “I bound to go to town”.

(paragraph 47 p. 97)

Celtic lore suggests “The Phoenix had the sweetest song of all the birds and its tears had

immense healing properties.”2(McGerr) Phoenix Jackson showed the courage to heal throughout

her journey. She has made this trip for her grandson. The roles should have been reversed, the

grandson caring for her. Instead we see that for two or three years Phoenix has fearlessly

undertaken this perilous trek through backcountry briars, ominous roads and the unsettling city.

She handled the bushes snagging with equanimity; “Thorns, you doing your appointed work”

(paragraph 8, p. 96). She boldly states her mission to the white hunter, “I bound to go to town

mister, The time come around.” (paragraph 47, p. 97) Phoenix still has to negotiate the

confusing city: “There were…crisscrossed [lights] everywhere…Phoenix would have been lost if

she had not distrusted her eyesight and depended on her feet to know where to take her.”

Phoenix Jackson exhibited remarkable courage in order to obtain the ‘soothing’ medication for

her grandson.
2
McGerr, Angela http://www.rhiannon.ie/myths.htm
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Phoenix Jackson and the mythical bird have been born and reborn through fire: it is

believed “The paragon of these birds is the phoenix …The fire blazes up, burning the phoenix

who will be reborn from its ashes just as indifferent as it was in dying.”3(Clement, 1994) The

bird rises from flames to preserve its own life and Phoenix Jackson rises to preserve the health

and maybe the life of her grandson. Phoenix Jacksons’ story has three references to rising from

fire, one historical, one actual and one implied; each of these has served to define her life.

Historically Phoenix Jackson refers to the burning and rebirth of the country; “I was too old at

the Surrender” (paragraph 90 p. 99) as a reason for her lack of education. But this does not

impede her in the accomplishment of her task. Phoenix survives the threat of fire from the white

hunter who lifts her out of the ditch. As the hunter points the gun, threatening fire, he asks

“Doesn’t the gun scare you?” and is answered “No sir, I seen plenty go off closer by, in my day,

and for less than what I done,” (paragraphs 57 & 58 p. 98). This is not a new threat of fire to her

and this will not impede her in accomplishing the task. Like the mythical bird Phoenix must rise

up at regular intervals to get the medication for her grandson. She must deny age and pains, fight

nature, endure the white mans’ scorching treatment and conquer an increasingly confusing city to

obtain medicine for the grandson whose throat has been seared and burned.

The character of Phoenix Jackson and the mythical bird share the traits of resilience,

courage to heal and resurrection through fire. There is fear that she may not have many journeys

left, and there is hope because, like the bird she is named for, each day may begin a new life.

3
Clement, Catherine, “The Philosophy of Rapture, SYNCOPE”, University of Minnesota Press, 1994, p222
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Works Cited

Clement, Catherine, “The Philosophy of Rapture, SYNCOPE”, University of Minnesota Press,

1994, p. 222

Herodotus, Histories 2. 73 (trans. Godley) (Greek historian C5th B.C.)

McGerr, Angela http://www.rhiannon.ie/myths.htm

Welty, Eudora. “A Worn Path.” Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. Ed. Edgar

V. Roberts. 4th Compact Ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2008, pp. 95-100.