Phoenix’s grandson does not appear in the story, but his medical condition is the reason for the old woman’s journey. Having swallowed lye (a strong alkaline substance used in making soap) several years ago, the boy’s throat is permanently damaged. His grandmother is the only relative he has left, and she makes the trip to town to receive medicine that soothes the pain. There has been no change in his condition, Phoenix tells the nurse, he sits with his “mouth open like a little bird.” She also says that though he suffers, he has “a sweet look.” Though Phoenix says he is not dead, some critics have theorized that he is.
The hunter encounters Phoenix after she has fallen into a ditch, the unfortunate result of an encounter with one of his dogs. He helps her up, demonstrating his willingness to assist a person in need. But his subsequent conversation with her reveals his disrespect for her and biased attitudes towards African Americans in general. When he learns that she intends to walk to town, he assumes Phoenix is not able to make the long journey and he tells her to go home; he has no qualms about issuing the order. But when she persists, he relents, assuming that the only reason “old colored people” would embark on such a long trail would be to see Santa Claus. In a second instance of disrespect, he tells Phoenix that he would give her a dime if he had one, unaware that Phoenix has already picked up the nickel that fell out of his pocket. In a third example, he points a gun at her face and asks if it scares her. He is amused by the fact that it does not, further emphasizing his insensitivity. Throughout the conversation, he refers to her as “Granny,” as the other characters do, all of whom are unwilling to look beyond Phoenix’s age and see her as an individual.
Old Phoenix Jackson is the protagonist of the story. She is described in vivid colors, suggesting her lively nature: she wears a red rag in her hair and her skin is described as “yellow,” “golden” and “copper.” Her age is indicated by the way she moves—slowly, in small steps, with the assistance of a cane—and by the wrinkles on her face, which form “a pattern all its own … as though a whole little tree stood in the middle of her forehead.” Because of her frailty, her determination to continue on her journey highlights her resilience and perseverance. Old Phoenix sees the Natchez Trace as an obstacle course, one that she tolerates with a fair sense of humor, despite her lapses into senility. She tells the animals to stay out of her way. Her dress gets caught in a thorny bush, and she tells the thorns “you doing your appointed work. Never want to let folks pass, no sir.” When a dog causes her to fall into a ditch she cannot climb out of, she simply awaits help—her sense of determination never succumbs to defeat.
When Phoenix is finally rescued by the white hunter, she suffers his indignations with stoic resolve. He tells her to go home and finally assumes that the purpose of her long journey is to see Santa Claus. Phoenix does not feel the need to ingratiate herself to him by explaining the purpose for her trip, however. Yet her willingness to take advantage of him for her own gain is demonstrated by her quick response to the nickel falling out of his pocket. However, her conscience bothers her:”God watching me the whole time. I come to stealing.” Ultimately, the hunter displays his disregard for her by pointing his hunting rifle at her. Phoenix remains unflustered. But she is not beyond asking for help. When she gets to town she asks a woman to tie her shoes for her. “I doesn’t mind asking a nice lady to tie up my shoe,” she says, indicating that her pride does not interfere with her humility. Still, Phoenix suffers insults: the woman calls her “Grandma,” and the nurse at the doctor’s office tells her “You mustn’t take up our time this way.”
In addition to remaining undaunted by the demeaning comments of others, Phoenix perseveres in the face of senility as well. During her trek, she imagines a boy bringing her a slice of cake and is startled back to reality by the sight of her arm grasping the air. At the doctor’s office, the nurse speaks to her at first to no avail:”It was my memory had left me” she says finally, “There I sat and forgot why I made my long trip.” When her mission is revealed—to get medicine for her grandson— Phoenix’s determination is immediately apparent. She has made the journey selflessly, for someone else’s sake. ”We is the only two left in the world,” she says, revealing her strong commitment to her family and her sacrificing nature.
Phoenix’s name is symbolic of the mythological bird who rises from its own ashes to begin another cycle of life. The old woman’s name thus suggests her timelessness and the fact that she can never be suppressed, even by those who would try to break her spirit.
The nurse reveals information about Phoenix Jackson that the reader does not know during the course of her journey. Thus, her conversation with Phoenix is the climax of the story. The nurse, who represents society’s general attitudes, displays some sensitivity towards the woman, assuring the attendant that “Old Aunt Phoenix… doesn’t come for herself—she has a little grandson.” Even so, the nurse treats the old woman with the same sense of belittlement that other characters in the story have. “You mustn’t take up our time this way,” she says, exasperated when the woman lapses into a spell of forgetfulness, “Tell us quickly about your grandson, and get it over.” Like the other people on Phoenix’s obstacle-course journey, the nurse prefers not to give Phoenix too much respect since she is old, African American, and a woman. Thus, in the nurse’s eyes, Phoenix is not entitled to all the respect granted others in society.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Eudora Welty, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.