On the surface it is a story about the trials and tribulations of old age and the love of a grandmother for the boy in her care. The main character, Phoenix Jackson, making the long trip to Natchez on foot on a "bright, frozen" December day, is dressed in a long, dark dress with an apron made of sugar sacks over it, a red head rag and unlaced shoes. Throughout most of the first part of the narration the woman talks to herself along the way, often referring to herself as old, one time even saying she's the oldest person she knows, and Welty describes her as "very old and small" and using a cane made of an old umbrella. This gives us an explanation of why her shoes are untied: it's implied that she's too old to be able to reach the laces.
During her trek Phoenix comes across a young, and as the author stresses, white hunter who helps her out of a ditch after she falls into it, scared by a stray dog that crosses her path. In addressing Phoenix, he calls her "Grandma" and "Granny". Upon Phoenix's second encounter, this time with a lady once she reaches Natchez, she is also addressed as Grandma. One would think that it was a rather respectful and kind way to refer to her, but upon researching scholarly essays and critiques of this story, one comes to discover, among other things, that Grandma was actually a racist term at the time, which would never be used for an elderly woman if she were white (Bethea). Furthermore, we also discover that the term "lady" was a title reserved for white women of that time period (Bethea), making it evident that the woman she spoke with in Natchez, whom Phoenix goes on to ask the favor of helping her by lacing her shoes, is also white.
This revealing information, as well as some background into the history of Natchez itself, which thrived due to the cotton industry and the slavery linked to it, offers further insight into the actions and words of the characters in the story, as well as allowing to perceive several additional layers therein that are not entirely evident to the modern, uninformed reader on the first read. Another example of this is that, upon further investigation, it is possible to intimate that Phoenix is being likened to a slave in the attire the author chooses to dress her in for the story -a red rag on her head, which was the closest to a hat that slave women sported in the South, and the apron, an imposition of the "Jim Crow" laws in southern towns which required black women to "wear aprons in public as humiliating signs of their continued oppression" (Bethea)- and her speech, which is uneducated.
It could be argued that the story is timeless in that it thoroughly illustrates the notions of love and sacrifice, and some go as far as to sustain that Phoenix Jackson is analogous to Christ in that she possesses many of His qualities in her willingness to endure pain, humiliation and possibly even death for the sake of love. A few scholars take it even further by likening Phoenix's fall into the ditch and later rescue by the hunter and the lacing of her shoes by the lady in Natchez to two of the Stations of the Cross (Keys 355), a fundamental tradition of Catholicism that visually portrays Christ's