Symbolism In Life and Death Jennifer Candis ENG 125 Ms. AltfeldFisher June 13, 2011 The short stories A Worn Path by Eudora Welty and Used To Live Here Once by Jean Rhys both carry the theme, symbolism of a journey. In both writings the authors used people, places and things to symbolize something extra, expanding the stories into more than just what is read. I chose these stories because they both consist of strong symbolic references to life. Each story was written in a third-person point of view and consisted of a journey made by the main characters, which in both cases happened to be a black woman.
Although in one story the character was already dead and in the other, fighting death, there are many similarities between the stories told. In A Worn Path, Phoenix Jackson is an elderly woman that encroaches on what appears to be a physically demanding trek through the forest. Already, the symbolism begins with the name of the woman. A phoenix is a mythical Egyptian bird symbolizing immortality and resurrection that rises from its own ashes and creates another phoenix (N. Isaacs, 1963), symbolizing the perseverance of life. Right away, the reader is made aware that Phoenix’s character is a fighter.
It becomes more apparent throughout the story. Phoenix is facing death in her old age and refuses to give in. Along her journey, she reaches a hill and she says, “Something always take a hold of me on this hill– pleads I should stay,” (Journey Into Literature, R. W. Clugston, 2010). I believe it is suggested at this point that she questions her strength to press on, not only against the hill but also against death. Her decision to accept this challenge shows her strength and determination live on. Once Phoenix had made it “up through pines,” she then faced the challenge of, “down through oaks” (R.
W. Clugston, 2010), in which time a bush snagged the dress she had worn. This could be suggestive of an obstacle or deterrent that any person could face during their lifetime, a sort of hiccup that gets in the way of where we are going. It is about the way in which we handle this annoyance and press on. The question that arises at this point is whether or not the old woman will have the might to carry on. She mentions that she was deceived by the thorny bush and had thought that it was just a “pretty little green bush,” (R. W.
Clugston, 2010). This may symbolize the trials that people face in life. Sometimes things appear at first to be one thing, when in fact the outcome is unexpected. However distracting, Phoenix manages to become free of the bush, and without damaging her dress in the process. I found this an interesting detail because while she could have just ripped herself free of the bush, she took the time and showed patience in making sure the thorns would not leave their mark on her clothes. This seems to be a reference to her age and wisdom.
With such a big task ahead of her, the time she took to spare her clothes imply that she is mature and not quick to make brash decisions. There is also a strong reference to Christmas throughout the story of Phoenix’s journey. The colors red and green appear many times starting with the description of the old woman’s hair which was tied with a red rag, her travelling through pinewoods which are green and also used as Christmas trees, she comes across mistletoe after conquering the hill and upon arriving in town she sees someone carrying presents wrapped in green, red and silver.
Christmas is a holiday that everyone knows of. Most recognize the Christmas season to be cheerful and one in which gift giving is a popular tradition. We do know that Phoenix was on her way to town to pick up medicine for her grandson and received a small monetary gift and used to purchase her grandson a small present. The giving of a gift that was used to purchase another is a generous symbol of what Christmas represents and was strongly displayed here. In Used To Live Here Once, the main character that is unnamed travels a journey similar to that of Phoenix Jackson.
This woman too is African American and seems to be elderly based upon the way she reflects on her surroundings and also how she views children. The events that occur in this story seem to symbolize one’s life path and the decisions that may have been made throughout the course. The first obstacle that the woman faces is using stones to cross a river. She recalls the stepping-stones fondly and this is the first time you sense that she, like Phoenix, is familiar with the path that she has chosen. “She was standing by the river looking at the stepping stones and remembering each one. As she remembers the stones, it seems that each one may have represented a point in her lifetime. For example, I feel that the “…safe stone where you could stand and look around,” may have represented childhood (R. W. Clugston, 2010). A safe place where you have not much responsibility and can take be a bystander until, you eventually grown up and have to make decisions for yourself. The author describes the day as, “a fine day, a blue day,” and the sky as having a, “glassy look that she couldn’t remember” (R. W. Clugston, 2010).
The color blue symbolizes peacefulness and I believe this is what the main character was feeling while reflecting on her life. Then, in the next line it is mentioned that the sky looks glassy and that she didn’t remember the sky appearing this way. I think that the symbolism here is that the sky is actually taking place of a mirror. The main character does not realize it yet, but she is actually from beyond this world and reflecting from the dead. She is revisiting her life through this journey and because it is her first time doing so, the “glassy” look was unfamiliar.
Next, the woman comes across a familiar spot, “She turned the corner, saw that what had been the old pave had been taken up, and there too the road was much wider, but it had the same unfinished look” (R. W. Clugston, 2010). The thought that I am left with by the author’s careful placement of this familiar place missing something so eloquent is mysterious. It appears that the woman knew the exact spot in which the pave was placed before it was gone. Her familiarity leads me to believe that this represented something of high importance in her life and now it is no longer there.
I do wonder why the author did not spend more time with the description of item or even suggested its significance. I suppose, however that the suspense is what the author had hoped for. Maybe the woman had lost someone close to her; a husband or a child, and as she walks down this familiar path she is remembering him or her. Whatever the actual mystery is, I believe that this single event signifies something of high importance. As the woman nears her destination of a house that she remembers fondly, “She stopped and looked towards the house that had been added to and painted white” (R. W. Clugston, 2010).
The add on to the house seems to represent the thought that life moves on after death. She remembered the house one way and while it remained the same house, it had been built on to. Although she had passed on, things continued to change and evolve without her. Her reference that the house had been painted white seems racial. While it is not said that the character is in fact a black woman, it is suggested by the way she describes the children that she sees playing in the yard, “Very fair children, as Europeans in the West Indies so often are: as if the white blood is asserting itself against all odds” (R.
W. Clugston, 2010). So the thought that the color of the house represents the color of people is possible, that herself and her black family had moved on and now a white family occupied the house. While both stories tell a completely different story, each carried heavy symbolism towards the thought of life and how each and every person may interpret life in their own way. One story was told through a living woman fighting death while the other was told of a woman who was already dead. Both stories however portrayed life’s struggles, as well as life’s joys.
The women in both writings seemed to have positive attitudes and a mature thought process. I believe that the similarities in the deliveries of these stories are inspiring because of the upbeat outlook on life. Even in the trials faced by Phoenix while travelling to town, and the unnamed woman’s confusion with familiar things that seemed out of place; both stories were uplifting and in my opinion, encouraging pieces. References: Isaacs, N. (1963). Life of Phoenix. Sewanee Review, 71 Clugston, R. W. (2010). Journey into literature. San Diego, California: Bridgepoint Education, Inc