Phoenix Jackson is an old, old woman. We don't know exactly how old, but we know that she is small and frail -- when a black dog comes out of the bushes and rushes her, she isn't ready for it and she "only hit him a little with her cane" but this is enough to topple her over, into a ditch, where she is unable to get up without help. She can barely negotiate the path, the hills: "Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far." (Also a symbol for the recent memory of slavery.) Typical of elderly, she talks to herself along the way, and to the animals and even the plants she encounters, seen and unseen. Also, we know that she is old because she is on a quest that she briefly forgets the purpose of, by the time she gets there.
Her journey is along a "worn path," thus we are led to believe this is a trip she has made numerous times. I think that this worn path is also symbolic for the pilgrimages made by all pilgrims who are on a quest, religious or otherwise, in all of history; the worn path is full of challenges and hardships along the way.
During the course of her journey, Phoenix is visited several times by dreams. One time, a boy comes to her offering a piece of marble cake; later, flat on her back and stuck in a ditch, another dream visits her. Both times, when she reaches her hand out, there is nothing there. There is no marble cake for her, and there is no one there to grab her hand and pull her out of the ditch. The marble cake seems to be symbolic of the blacks and whites trying to get along together -- to blend -- in the south in the 1930s and 1940s. Phoenix reaches her hand out twice, first to accept the cake and then to receive help getting up, and both times, nothing is there -- the dream of racial harmony is not yet realized, yet Phoenix keeps reaching for it.
When she is "found" by a white hunter, he is patronizing, and although he helps her out of the ditch, he then trivializes her quest: "Why that's too far!" he says, "That's as far as I walk when I come out myself, and I get something for my trouble." As if an old black woman has no purpose for walking to town. "Now you go on home, Granny!" he says. Later, laughing, "I know you old colored people! Wouldn't miss going to town to see Santa Claus!" The hunter also taunts her with his gun, pointing it straight at her. It's almost as if he is reminding her of her place in a white world, and getting humor by such a threatening gesture.
The main themes here are, of course, racism, but more than that there is a message of hope and perseverance, and strength in the face of hardship. Old frail Phoenix is tougher than she appears, and she doesn't scare easily, either. She has seen it all in her…