Eudora Welty, in her character Phoenix Jackson, creates humanity’s counterpart of the phoenix firebird from oriental tradition. 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. Ana4rzing the character of Phoenix is pleasurable because the characteristics of her “roundness” are primarily positive, static traits. She is tenacious, confident, wise, and resolute with a clear sense of purpose which guides her fearlessly toward her goal.
One word can summarize Phoenix‑‑noble. Even in the one situation when the reader sees Phoenix being sly, her slyness is immediately forgivable. Her slyness is a minor negative characteristic in comparison to her innumerable positive ones and is not a conflicting quality. It is, instead, justifiable in light of the pureness of her motivation‑‑love.
Ihe similarities of the phoenix bird and Phoenix Jackson are readily apparent in the author’s physical description of Phoenix; “…her head tied in a red rag,” “…a golden color ran underneath,” and “…a yellow burning under the dark”(457).
Further confirming the parable between the woman and the bird is the cornme made by Phoenix at the spring, “Sweetgum makes the water sweet’ (459). (Sweet‑gum K supposedly, the firebird’s source of nourishment) Since it is obvious that Ms. Welty has made these comparisons, it is noteworthy that the phoenix, in addition to symbolizing immortality, is said to be a good and wonderful bird, possessing qualities not unlike the eagle’s: nobility and powers of endurance. Phoenix Jackson shares these same qualities.
Phoenix Jackson is an old Negro woman (456). Being black and female in Natchez, Nfississippi, any time prior to 1963 was particularly treacherous. Since Phoenix refers to the “Surrender,” the reader knows that she lived during and after the Civil War. This fact confirms that society afforded her little respect. Indeed, the majority ofwhite people would have considered her little more than an animal. However, an investigation of Phoeribes interaction with other (obviously white) characters in the story proves that her noble character commands respect despite her age, race, and sex.
For example, when the hunter points his gun at her, Phoenix responds by standing firm and facing him straight on. The hunter’s respect is evident in this comment, ‘Well, Granny, you must be a hundred years old and scared of nothing’ (460). Furthermore, when the elegant lady on the street stoops to tie Phoerlik’s shoes, the reader sees Phoenik’s commanding, noble character at work. In fact, it would appear that out of a crowd of people, Phoenix actually chooses this one particular woman to lace up her shoes:
She paused quietly on the sidewalk where people were passing by. A lady came along in the crowd, carrying an armful of…presents; she gave off perfume like the red roses in hot summer, and Phoenix stopped her (460).
Tradition says the phoenix bird has an affinity for frankincense, aromatic gums, and spices. It is also worthwhile to note that the “nice lady,” as well as the hunter, initially responds to Phoenix In a negative, perhaps derogatory, way by calling her “Granny’ or “Grandma.” But in the final analysis, the lady is (at least momentarily) at Phoenix7s feet, and the hunter voices his admiration. Phoenix’s physical stature stands in sharp contrast to the enormity of her journey. Welty establishes in the first paragraph that Phoenix is very old and small. Me fact that her walking could be aided and sustained by a thin, small cane made from an umbrella provides the reader with a graphic Illustration of her diminutive size.
Her small size, of course, emphasizes, by contrast, Phoenixs giant‑sized determination and perseverance. Effects of old age, particularly poor eyesight, intensifies Phoenix’s dangerous trek. When the path runs up a hill, Phoenix says, “Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far” (457). Poor vision is indicated throughout the story, for example, “Old eyes thought you was a pretty little green bush” (457). However, one uncanny incident occurs regarding PhoenbCs eyesight. She sees “…with her own eyes a flashing nickel fall out of the man’s pocket onto the ground” (459). This episode supports the parallel drawn between Phoenix and the firebird‑‑she exercises ‘bird‑like” vision. Perhaps she has long contemplated what she would do if she had a nickel or a dime.