In the literature class, we have read a short story called «The Phoenix» by Sylvia Townsend Warner, and we have analyzed it together in class. After analyzing the story in depth, our teacher gave us four essay questions and we had to choose one and write and essay. I wrote this essay with Juana Zufriategui. This is the final draft as we have already corrected it with our teacher’s comments.
Essay Question; What does Warner make you feel about human nature in ‘The Phoenix’?
In the short story “The Phoenix”, written by Sylvia Townsend Warner, one of the main themes is Man as opposed to Nature. All throughout the story, humans abuse and manipulate nature by making it suffer and harming it. Therefore, our feelings of distrust towards human nature grow as the narrative unfolds. “The Phoenix” makes us realize that humans are selfish and cruel as they do not appreciate things for their true value, and all they care for is making profit out of something. Warner also uses several literary devices to increase this attitude we have towards humans. Nevertheless, she does show us that there are some of us who are kind-hearted and have a good spirit towards nature.
To begin with, all throughout the story, men show how they are capable to go any lengths to gain money. Mr. Poldero is a freeloader whose main aim is to achieve commercial success; he does not care about what he has to do in the process to get this. Throughout the text, he is willing to do whatever is necessary to make the Phoenix age, and therefore burn to ashes, creating a spectacle everyone would want to attend. In the story, Poldero embodies humans, henceforth, everything we dislike that is associated with him, transforms in something we dislike of human nature. Furthermore, Poldero may be the one believed to abuse the phoenix, but he is not the only one guilty as humans also harm it by paying tickets to see his suffering. Humans are portrayed as abhorrent creatures due to their behaviour towards the phoenix, which they mistreat and exploit in order to make money. At the very beginning, short after Podero buys the phoenix, the text says; “Poldero considered his phoenix a bargain”. Through this quotation, we can perceive that Poldero sees the phoenix as a business as he believes it only suffices as a money-making element. Poldero does not see the pheonix as a living organism that needs to be cared for, but he regards it as an object. Men are greedy, and that’s not a respectable feature for human beings. We hate Poldero because he hurts an innocent animal who doesn’t deserve to be treated like that, and he just does it to make money, which he will keep to himself.
All along “The Phoenix”, we can remark the fact that human beings do not acknowledge the true value of things. Instead of taking proper care of the phoenix, especially when it is such a rare and unique animal in the world, humans harm it just to earn money. As well as Poldero impersonates humans, the phoenix represents nature. Considering this, we can say that every time that Poldero hurts the phoenix, he is harming nature in its whole. Humans do not realize that all the actions they carry out would be more fruitful if they co-worked with nature rather than manipulating and controlling it. Warner’s text reflects upon nature showing how essential is that they should take care of nature because it is an crucial part of their survival on earth; without nature, humans would not exist. During the time Poldero thinks about what to do in order to age the phoenix he has an idea: “Daily he stationed himself in front of the cage to jeer at the bird and abuse it”. In this quotation we can see how Poldero believes it is a good idea to exploit the Phoenix. This shows us that he does not understand the worth of nature.
What’s more, during the story, we can find diverse literary devices, such as irony, sarcasm and cynicism which show humans in a negative light. The quotation we have mentioned in the paragraph above shows us irony and cynicism in the story. Irony can be seen here because it’s contradictory to say that abusing something is a good idea, worse it is when the subject is nature. Abusing is a dreadful thing, and this should never be considered “good”. Through this quotation we can also see elements of cynicism, as when we read this, we tend to generate attitudes and feelings of acrimony and distrust towards this character, and henceforth, towards human nature in general. The author also uses sarcasm at the beginning of the text, when Lord Strawberry is still in possession of the aviary: “He had the finest aviary in Europe, so large that eagles did not find it uncomfortable”. This is sarcastic because animals should be in their own habitat, and it’s not true that they find a cage comfortable. No cage is a suitable place for a bird to live. Using the double negative in this fragment precisely remarks this point. We believe that the author does this on purpose to produce a feeling of loath for humans because she may have wanted us to become aware of our wrong-doings, and change this unacceptable trait. After reading her biography, we also hold the theory that she had a personal disbelief towards humans, and wanted to spread this to the audience. She had to fend for herself as a child due to the early death of her father, and later on she worked on factories, which were mean and did not respect labourers. This, added to the fact that she despises and critiques the capitalist system in her pieces of writing, makes us get to the conclusion that she did not sympathize with most humans, as most of them are, and were in the time she wrote story, capitalists.
Human gore is a theme that is also seen throughout the narrative, which contributes to the cynicism of the story. This suggests that men have an indulgence in watching the suffering of others, an attraction to the gruesome. Both of these things are present in the story, and the subject of suffering is the phoenix, or nature. They bought tickets to see how a feeble and innocent bird burst into flames, died and was then reborn. Humans seemed to enjoy and find satisfaction in watching the phoenix struggling through this horrendous process. A few moments before the phoenix does this, Poldero says; “…this is the thrilling moment the world has breathlessly awaited”. This is a clear example of human gore, as they wanted to see an animal die and suffer, they thought it was exhilarating and were looking forward for it to happen. It shows how desensitized humans were upon seeing nature agonizing, and they even thought it was a fun thing to see.
In spite of this, during the narrative there’s one thing we can rescue and consider as a good quality in humans. Lord Strawberry embodies the part of human nature which is kind indeed and does appreciate nature. By creating a character as Lord Strawberry, Warner shows us that not all humans are like Poldero. During the short part of the story which talks about Lord Strawberry, we can notice the man had an affection for the bird and really cared about him, “he found a phoenix, won its confidence…much attached to Lord Strawberry”. This man looked after the phoenix and showed his intentions were pure, so he won his trust and created a strong bond. She shows us two aspects of men upon nature; Lord Strawberry and Mr. Poldero. Lord Strawberry gives us the hope that some humans do remain good and are not as harmful and cruel as Poldero, and maybe one day, the good humans will prevail in the face of the dark ones.
All in all, Warner makes us feel that most of humans are cruel, greedy and cold-blooded, that they do not understand the value of the truly important things. Throughout the text, she uses many literary devices to provoke this feeling of anguish about our nature, and by this, she may be expressing her personal emotions. All these characteristics are befitted of self-centred and evil individuals, which makes humans hateful during the story. However, while she shows us all the bad facets of humans, she also shows us that some do remain good-natured, as Lord Strawberry. “The Phoenix” helps us to understand that being greedy and the aggressive will always bring bad consequences, as we can see with Poldero, although it’s an extreme case, because it was his insatiable greed that brought him to his own death. Nature will always strike back, harsher than humans can imagine or even resist to, when its limits are trespassed.