Wetly’s story is situated in the Depression Era South on a rugged stretch of terrain between the house of the narrative’s protagonist, Phoenix Jackson and Natchez, Mississippi. Her dwelling is located “beyond the ridge” (40) “back off the Old Natchez Trace” (75); and Natchez is located in an undefined, yet long proximity from her house. Such a time setting and environment, with an aged “negro woman” (1) trekking through an American wilderness in “December”(1) the reader immediately enters into a theme of sympathy for this apparently helpless woman. It is not for herself that Old Phoenix makes this long journey upon a historic “road worn deep into the Mississippi landscape by centuries of travelers” (Heller, 1) of America’s pastime. It for the sake of her sick grandson, whom she describes as sitting “in the house all wrapped up waiting by himself” (90) on her return. Terry Heller points out the obvious surface meaning of the book’s theme by stating that, “Phoenix has made the journey enough times that her path to Natchez seems a worn path” (Heller, 1).
While it was an era of poverty and oppression, it was also a time of reconstruction and rebirth. A new country with a new mindset was destined to rise out of the ashes from this period of despair. It is in this motif that Old Phoenix becomes a symbol and hero of a much needed revival of love. Through the rugged and determined spirit of an aged Phoenix Jackson, Eudora Wetly communicates the theme of undying love’s subtle power upon all classes of society. In traditional Greek mythology, the Phoenix is a bird that suffers a cycle of inevitable death and rebirth. Like her namesake and moral character, Phoenix Jackson represents the inevitable triumph and needed rebirth of self-sacrificing love in twentieth century America. The mythological bird known as the φοίνιξ, or Phoenix would renew “itself periodically from its own ashes” (Bartel, 288). After the civil war and failed reconstruction, a once blooming nation was left a mere wreck of dismay and ruin.
Seven decades later, a nation was still suffering the results of a war filled with bitter bloodshed, emancipated slave families in a free world with an institutionalized mindset of bondage, and a dead economy all seemed to be in need of one thing–a rebirth. Similar to old Phoenix’s poor physical sight, the nation’s sight had been damaged by bereavement, pain, poverty, and fear for the future. Yet, the only answer to true recovery of any society is obtaining the mindset of love and not resentment for our fellow citizens at a grassroots level. It is this principle alone that can triumphantly cut through hatred and truly liberate oneself. Terry Heller quotes Eudora Wetly herself saying, “‘The habit of love cuts through confusion and stumbles or contrives its way out of difficulty, it remembers the way even when it forgets, for a dumbfounded moment, its reason for being’” (Heller, 2). The mention of Mistletoe in Phoenix’s journey just after her encounter with a thorn bush symbolically illustrates the theme of undying love over the power of hardship.
Dave Piwinski remarked regarding this encounter as supporting, “the interpretation of Phoenix Jackson as Christ-like” and a “portrait of…the epitome of love-inspired fortitude” (Piwinski, 41). As Old Phoenix began to tire from her journey, “a bush caught her dress” (5) and she exclaimed “I in the thorny bush…thorns, do your appointed work. Never want to let folks pass” (10). The thorn bush, “is symbolic of the Passion and a reminder of the Crown of Thorns which was placed on the head of the Suffering Servant in derision” (Keys, 355). As the Crown of Thorns did not thwart Christ from His mission, neither did the thorn bush thwart Old Phoenix. Furthermore, Phoenix was deceived by thorns because it appeared as just a harmless “pretty little green bush” (5), and so she was entangled in its thorns. So, too, Jesus was deceived by a seemingly harmless friend, who deceived “him with a kiss” (Luke 22:48, kjv).
Another theme is introduced midway through the story when Old Phoenix encounters “a tree in a pearly cloud of mistletoe” (15). Piwinski notes, “that Christian legend has given mistletoe an alternative name, one whose etymology complements the story’s other Christological allusions. According to this legend, mistletoe was once a strong tree that provided the wood from which Christ’s cross was built” (Piwinski 42). Just before Christ’s crucifixion, He was hailed as the long promised King as He rode triumphantly into Jerusalem on a donkey. Fascinatingly, during this procession, children gathered “the branches of the palm” (John 12:13, ylt), or as it is stated in the original Greek text, “φοίνιξ” – the Koine Greek word for Phoenix. A theme of victory through humility and self- sacrifice is embodied in the symbolic mistletoe. Christ, similar to the mythological Phoenix, was ascending to power as conquering King…but not in the way one would typically expect a “King” to rise.
Yet He obtained what He sought–a healing balm for His children. Like Christ, Old Phoenix displayed a power over her enemies…but not the type of power one would immediately discern. In the end, she obtained what she sought–a healing balm for her grandchild (90). As Mistletoe can grow in the highest of trees, so too both Christ and Old Phoenix silently and subtly ascended to a higher position than their enemies. Thus, “In her self-sacrificing devotion to her grandson, she embodies the love and affection signified by this plant, and her persistence in overcoming numerous difficulties on her journey epitomizes the mistletoe’s message” (Piwinski 42). The theme of calm humility conquering stormy arrogance is illustrated in Phoenix’s encounter with a young, ignorant hunter. Old Phoenix was caught off her guard when a black dog knocked her over “like a puff of milkweed” into a ditch (35).
“Like Jesus, Phoenix falls beneath the weight of her ‘cross,’ her great age, and is helped to her feet be a stranger” (Keys, 355). It is worthy of note that after Old Phoenix’s fall, none of her bones are “broken” (40); as also was with Christ, being symbolic of the Jewish Passover Lamb, “not a bone was broken” (Exodus 12:46; John 19:33). However, the stranger who helps Old Phoenix turns out to be an oppressing agent, showing little respect for her age or femininity other than assisting her to her feet. He belittles her with demeaning stereotypes, laughs at her plans, and even tauntingly points a gun toward her. Yet, her responses to his attacks are not fiery retaliations or accusations, but a calm insistency on going forward with her plan. In that era of inequality, she quietly and mistletoe-like, rose above her oppressive enemy.
Through the whole experience, she was helped up out of a ditch too deep for her to climb and was able to continue on her journey…and now, a nickel richer! It is touching upon this theme that the late Martin Luther King once stated, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” Every element, character, symbol, and encounter in Welty’s story is woven together by the all-embracing theme of Old Phoenix’s parental love which runs like a golden thread throughout the story, uniting every detail into one great message.
Her courage in the face of political, social, physical, and economic adversity speaks to all–weak and strong, rich and poor of our day. Though she had every reason to retire from her mission of providing relief to her grandchild, she refused to throw in the towel. Yet, what was it that caused her to persevere? It was her love. After she obtains the medicine that was, “not for herself” but “her grandson” (75), Marilynn Keys correctly wrote, “Love’s action is completed” (Keys, 356). While her mental and physical being was tottering towards death, her love was as strong as it had ever been.
Neither the roughness of the journey or the barrel of the young hunter’s gun were enough to overpower love in the heart of this old granny. Though her ailing memory caused her “to forget why” she made the long trip (90) and dim eyesight,“could not be trusted” to “guide her along the path” (60)…yet it was her love alone that completed the journey. As Heller describes her journey, “That image of a solitary old woman walking across a winter landscape came to mean ‘the deep-grained habit of love’” (Heller, 2). And so, through aged Phoenix Jackson, the theme of self-sacrificing love’s subtle power to accomplish change is perfectly illustrated by her habitual charity towards her grandson.