The naming of the main character ‘Phoenix’ in Welty’s short story “A Worn Path” provides many different implications and meanings for the character, providing subtext that would otherwise be missing from such a self-contained tale. The Phoenix is a mythical bird that lives for hundreds of years before burning itself into ashes, a new phoenix rising from those ashes, reborn. In myth and legend, the Phoenix is a symbol of strength, integrity, rebirth and dedication. It is also known to be quite benevolent, giving of others and adoring of the sunlight. It has a very strong connection to the colors red and crimson, which are indicative of the fire that gave the Phoenix resurrection. (Van der Broek, 12) With this in mind, there are several implications that can be made from Welty’s decision to give her main character that name, which will be examined in this critical essay.
Even from her appearance, the character of Phoenix is visually indicative of the mythical creature. Across her head is a red rag, matching the color of the phoenix, which she wears throughout the journey. Under her cheeks glowed “a yellow burning under the dark,” another indicator of fire and burning from deep within, just like the phoenix. (Welty, 142) When she arrives in Natchez, she asks a woman who “gave off perfume like the red roses in hot summer” to tie her shoe, linking the end of her journey with the color red once more. (Welty, 147)
Phoenix’ journey throughout the story is rife with danger, as she encounters animals and men who offer either implicit or explicit risk with their presence. Even the pinewoods she walks through provide a sufficient challenge for her tired feet – she remarks that “there is chains about [her] feet, time [she] gets this far,” expressing her own fatigue at the journey she is taking. (Welty, 143) The real threats come from a dog which knocks her off the trail, and the implicit threat from the white man who rescues her, only to turn a gun on her.
Luckily, Phoenix is armed with everything that she requires to handle everything that comes her way – a small cane, her words, and an unfailing sense of dedication to her task. No matter what obstacle she encounters, she approaches it with the same lack of fear; every threat is met with a remark from the acerbic Aunt Phoenix. Even when her rescuer turns his gun around to face him, she merely tells him that she “seen plenty go off closer by, in my day, and for less than what [she] done.” (Welty, 146) She refuses help from nearly everybody, especially when the help involves something that would disrupt her ultimate objective – getting to Natchez. At the same time, there are instances where she begrudgingly permits assistance, such as when the hunter scares off the dog and rescues her from the ditch. Also, she willingly asks for help tying her shoe as soon as she reaches her destination. Despite needing help, she never makes the decision to turn back; Phoenix’s journey is unavoidable and must be completed, and she will do so by any means necessary.
Her aim in this trek to Natchez is to provide the medicine that her grandson needs every so often for his damaged throat. Like the phoenix, her journey is a cycle, having to make this life-saving trek on a periodic basis. Each trip to Natchez and back is like the lifetime of the phoenix, and subsequently provides a sense of purpose for Aunt Phoenix. From her interactions with the other characters (who are always surprised to see her making this journey), as well as her geographical location (being so far from town, or anything else), it is implicit that she is not able to easily get out of her home. All of the human characters she encounters, from the boy to the hunter to the nurse and attendants at the clinic in Natchez, are equally surprised that she has made it out this far. At the same time, the imperative nature of the trip to get medicine for her grandson gives her the motivation she needs to brave the elements and possible dangers along the way. This cycle never will end for Aunt Phoenix, as she must perpetually go on this journey in order to help her grandson, which also evokes the kind of benevolence that the phoenix is known for.
With a combination of visual cues and character nuances, the character of Aunt Phoenix is very indicative of the phoenix bird of legend. The nature of her journey is cyclical, not unlike the life cycle of the phoenix. The aim of the journey is benevolent, as she is protecting her grandson’s life by getting the needed medicine. She is a solitary figure, only accepting help when she needs it, and braving dangers in order to reach her goal. She is an incredibly strong-willed character, much more so than her frailty belies, as her confidence and dedication allow her to weather the obstacles in her path. It is for these reasons and more that the naming of the character “Phoenix” provides a much needed perspective on the woman as a whole. This scheme allows the audience to understand much more about her character than is revealed over the course of the story.
R. Van den Broek, The Myth of the Phoenix - According to Classical and Early Christian
Traditions, E.J.Brill, Leiden, 1972.