An Honest Portrayal
by Heather Adcock
Life is a learning experience that leads to growth and understanding. Many of us are just beginning this journey, yet others are nearing its completion. A common practice in literature is the use of characters with whom the reader identifies and can understand. A sympathetic mature protagonist created by the author is an easy way to accomplish this goal. The element of old age in literature is not a new idea; authors have used this technique on numerous occasions. It is generally accepted that an older person possesses a knowledge and confidence that a younger person can only attempt to emulate. The use of older characters demonstrates this reality in each of these stories: " A Worn Path," "How Far She Went," and " A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings." The authors of these stories use mature characters to convey the qualities of wisdom, persistence, and humanity.
The wisdom that is gained from living cannot be taught; it can only be learned through experience. Eudora Welty creates a lovely old woman named Phoenix Jackson in the story "A Worn Path." Old Phoenix says, "‘I’m an old woman without an education,"’ yet she is wise enough to keep her composure when a gun is pointed directly at her (Welty 229). Despite the fact that she encounters numerous obstacles on her long journey, Phoenix remains composed and is able to arrive safely at her destination (Feeley 14). Her years of experience have taught her how to handle situations. The granny in Mary Hood’s "How Far She Went" is equally wise, but in a somewhat different manner. Although she is not as calm or poised as Phoenix, she is able to rescue her granddaughter. The granny is only fifty, but her troubled life has made her wise beyond her years. The struggle in the story can best be surmised as a conflict stemming from pride and rebellion. Joy Farmer suggests that the grandmother’s wisdom stems from her sin of bearing an illegitimate child. Her experience has made her "the source of a moral truth" (Farmer 94). The granny feels that because she has lived through many troubling experiences, she knows the intentions and motives of the bikers. This assessment proves to be accurate, and the grandmother is ultimately able to outsmart the bikers. Both Welty and Hood have a history of writing fiction in which the main characters are strong, wise females ("Mary Hood"). These stories are no exception.
Likewise, in "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," the angel demonstrates his wisdom when he chooses to keep his budding wings a secret. Marquez writes, "He must have known the reason for those changes, for he was quite careful that no one should notice them" (335). The old man avoids communication with the villagers, but perhaps this is his choice. He simply chooses to observe the ridiculous behavior of those around him. The story’s author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was strongly influenced by the relationship he had with his grandmother as a child (Cobb 25). This impact is evident in the enchanting older character Marquez creates. The angel’s quite wisdom is convincingly portrayed through the use of a mature character.
In addition, the characters in these stories all demonstrate persistence. This behavior is often associated with older people; it is not always present in the younger generation. Persistence is learned; therefore, the characterizations in these stories are very fitting. The grandmother in Mary Hood’s story pursues the bikers relentlessly. She is determined "to get back what was theirs." The character further demonstrates her determination at the end of the story when she refuses her granddaughter’s offer for assistance. The grandmother struggles to her feet with her dead dog in her arms and says, "‘Around here we bear our own burdens’" (Hood). In "The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," the angel is persistent in his attempts to fight. To the astonishment and relief of Elisenda, he eventually succeeds (Marquez 335). Persistence comes through years of struggle, triumph, and defeat. Both of these characters have lived long enough to develop this trait.
Likewise, Phoenix Jackson is the epitome of persistence in the story "A Worn Path." Welty describes Phoenix as having "the balanced heaviness and lightness of a pendulum in a grandfather clock" (223). Some individuals have hypothesized that Phoenix Jackson’s struggle down the "worn path" may actually symbolize the plight of Southern Blacks after the Civil War (Sykes 152). The Southern Black’s treacherous journey to freedom can be compared to Phoenix’s arduous voyage. Despite numerous struggles, the Black movement was persistent in its struggle for equality, just as Old Phoenix never abandoned her journey into town.
Finally, the mature characters in these stories all exhibit qualities of humanity. The frailties of age serve to create an element of realism. Old Phoenix, exhausted from her day of travel, forgets the reason for her journey upon her arrival. She states, "‘It was my memory had left me. There I sat and forgot why I made my long trip’" (Welty 229). William Jones suggests that Welty chose an old Negro woman for Phoenix’s character because "only a simple individual is worthy of representing the powerful force which inspires such love as hers for her grandchild" (Jones 2). Compassion is felt for granny in "How Far She Went" as remembers the child she could not love and has already lost (Hood). Mary Hood has a history of developing characters with a strong element of realism who are "misfits of some sort" (Farmer 91). Hood and Welty could be describing someone that the reader knows, and this description makes the reader better able to identify with the story.
In addition, an element of humanity is seen in "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings." Marquez’s angel, who is a celestial being, takes a human quality as his plight unfolds. Marquez writes, "His pitiful condition of a drenched great-grandfather had taken away any sense of grandeur he might have had" (330). His age, coupled with the way he is treated, causes the reader to feel sadness for the old angel. The treatment of the angel as something entirely natural causes the reader to better understand and accept him. Marquez describes the angel’s attributes in earthly terms, and he "denies the old man any of the heroic or exalted qualities we expect" (Faulkner 2). One begins to believe that the decrepit old angel is a very real possibility.
The stories "A Worn Path," "How Far She Went," and "The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" contain wonderful and realistic characters. The authors create endearing individuals who weave a fabric of wisdom, persistence, and humanity. These characters would not be as believable if they were younger. Despite the artistic differences of Welty, Hood, and Marquez, they each understand the value of fashioning a character with whom the reader can identify. In a society that values youth, it is interesting to note that everyone is in a state of aging. Much can be learned from elders, for their reality is our eventuality.
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This essay was written by Heather Adcock, then a sophomore majoring in Nurshing. It was written for Dr. Marsha Mathews’ ENGL 1102 class during summer 2004 semester. To her credit, Ms. Adcock was the 2004 Boring Nursing Scholarship Reciptent and a member of Phi Theta Kappa.