Author Background

Syvia Townsend Warner was born in Middlesex in 1893. Her father was a house master in Harrow School. His early death was a blow to Sylvia and she moved to London soon after and found work in an armament factory. She had strong leftist leanings and she wrote anti-fascist articles for communist publications. Her dislike for commercialism is evident in this short story.

Relevance of the Title

The Phoenix is the central character in the story. For most of the time it plays a passive role but at the denouement is of its creation. The phoenix is a bird that had unusual powers. It sets fire to itself when it turns old and dies in the conflagration but a new bird is born from the ashes. In this story too there is a fire but it engulfs everyone in the vicinity. It does this in revenge for the indignities its owner heaps on it trying to make grow old unnaturally.

Main Themes

The main theme is the greed of man and his exploitation of nature for commercial success. Man comes into conflict with nature and nature exacts a heavy price. The phoenix stands for nature and Poldero stands for the human race which will do anything for money. Poldero finds that people are not interested in the phoenix as it is “too quiet”. So he puts the bird through an artificial aging process so that it will burn itself. There is also the theme of the society’s fascination for the sensational and the grotesque. People queue in large numbers to witness the macabre self immolation by the phoenix.

Characters

Lord Strawberry

He is a cultured nobleman whose aviary is his pride. He is eager to add a phoenix to it and travels to Arabia in search of one. He finds a genuine one after which he spends time with the bird to win its confidence. Back home, he provides the bird with all it needs. Lord Strawberry stands for humans who never come into clash with nature as they understand it well.

Poldero

Poldero is the proprietor of Poldero’s Wizard Wonderland where he exhibits his collection of unusual creatures. Poldero bids for and buys Lord Strawberry’s phoenix when the nobleman dies. Poldero is in this business purely for the money his collection brings him. He does not have any feelings for his creatures. When he finds that the attraction for the phoenix falls among the public, he looks for other ways to make money. This is when he finds out that when the phoenix is old and weak, it bursts into flames and from that fire a new phoenix is born. The only trouble was that his phoenix was in good health. So he sets about creating a hostile environment for it. He cuts its food supply, keeps it with alley cats and birds that are inimical to the phoenix. When he decides the time is right, he advertises the spectacular end of the phoenix and the birth of the new bird. What Polder does not bargain for was the consequences of his action. The bird sets off a fire in which the spectators and Poldero perish.

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Plot

Lord Strawberry owns the phoenix. When he dies, the bird falls into the hands of the crafty Polder who makes much money by exhibiting the bird to the public. But when the initial fascination wears off, the crowds thin. Poldero now wants the public to see the grand spectacle of the bird bursting into flames, a ritual that happens when the bird becomes old. Poldero now mistreats the bird making it infirm. He advertises the self immolation of the phoenix. Crowds throng the venue along with the media, the bird bursts into flames, there is a conflagration and all present including Poldero are burnt to death.

Summary

Lord Strawberry owns a fine aviary; his ambition is to add a phoenix to his collection. When he finally procures one, he keeps it well, taking great care of the bird. The Lord’s death makes the future of the aviary uncertain with the entire lot up for sale. The phoenix is bought by Poldero, an unscrupulous man who makes money by exhibiting strange animals. The phoenix draws huge crowds and earns Poldero money. But once the initial fascination wears off, people become bored as the bird is too quiet. This is when Polder learns that when the phoenix becomes old ad infirm, it bursts into flames and from its ashes is born a new phoenix. Poldero now gets to aging the bird unnaturally by starving it and subjecting it to great stress by providing it a hostile environment. He advertises the bird’s spectacular death in a few days in all the newspapers. People are fascinated and flock to buy tickets for the event. The media too is ready to cover the event. As expected, the phoenix bursts into flames but in the resulting conflagration, all present there die, including Poldero.

Metaphorical inferences

The phoenix is a mythical bird that is a symbol of immortality because from the fire that consumes one bird, another is born. The bird in this story stands for nature. Poldero is a symbol for man who is greedy and tinkers with nature in his pursuit for money. Whereas fire for the bird is not the end, Poldero and the spectators perish in the fire. There is poetic justice in the bird’s revenge.

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Language

The language is often loaded with irony. Warner satirises the sensation hungry society and the crude commercial values of Poldero.

6 Important Quotes

1. But for many years the finest set of apartments remained empty, with just a label saying: “PHOENIX. Habitat: Arabia.”
Lord Strawberry kept the finest aviary in Europe. It was spacious enough to house full grown eagles. The climate control inside ensured that humming birds and snow buntings that lived on the two ends of the climate spectrum existed comfortably inside. The only bird that was missing was the fabulous phoenix, a native of Arabia.
2. But it was not puffed by these attentions, and when it was no longer in the news, and the visits fell off, it showed no pique or rancour. It ate well, and seemed perfectly contented.
Lord Strawberry travelled all the way to Arabia to procure the phoenix. When it was brought home, it caused a sensation and a steady stream of visitors, ornithologists, poets, journalists and milliners filed past, pausing to exclaim and gawk. After a while all was quiet and the stream of visitors dried. But the bird minded neither the constant attention nor the inattention. It was an amiable bird that was contented with life and nothing much could upset it.
3. But then business slackened. The phoenix was as handsome as ever, and amiable; but, as Mr. Poldero said, it hadn’t got Allure. Even at popular prices the phoenix was not really popular. It was too quiet, too classical.
To begin with, the phoenix was a major attraction at Poldero’s Wizard Wonderland with large crowds paying top prices to see the phoenix. But as time went on, people got jaded with the phoenix as it did not do anything much. It did not flap about or screech. Its good looks were not enough to draw the crowds in. Poldero reduced his prices but the crowds did not come.
4. “Suppose,” continued Mr. Poldero, “we could somehow get him alight? We’d advertise it beforehand, of course, work up interest. Then we’d have a new bird, and a bird with some romance about it, a bird with a life story. We could sell a bird like that.”
Poldero is desperate to make profit using the phoenix. The numbers of people coming in to view it had dwindled over the weeks. That’s when Poldero learns a little more about the bird and its habits. The phoenix would burst into flames when it became old and from the flames a new bird would rise. If this phoenix would set itself alight, they could exploit that event by whetting the appetite of the people for sensation and selling the event as a mega happening.
5. These could not be won by manners, but the phoenix darted above their heads and flapped its golden wings in their faces, and daunted them.
As part of the aging process, Poldero exposes the phoenix to a hostile environment. He starved the bird so it grew thin, he turned its heating off and housed it with noisy, querulous birds. Though these birds troubled it first, he won them over by being pleasant all through. But when alley cats were moved into its apartment, the phoenix became aggressive and they cowed down.
6. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the thrilling moment the world has breathlessly awaited. The legend of centuries is materializing before our modern eyes. The phoenix…”
After months of preparation, it appears that the phoenix has aged, though artificially. The crowds coming to see the phoenix has swelled again. Moviemakers to whom filming rights have been sold are in attendance. The loudspeakers keep blaring sentimental mush in order to whip up sentiment among the public. The whole exercise is conducted with an eye on the money the event will bring in.

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Questions

1. Lord Strawberry went to great lengths to procure genuine birds. How does he get the phoenix?
2. What circumstances cause the phoenix to arrive at Poldero’s Wizard Wonderland?
3. Poldero is a smart businessman though he is no lover of animals. How does he make money when the phoenix comes to him?
4. When does Poldero begin to look for desperate remedies?
5. Can this story be read as an allegory on the conflict between man and nature? Support your answer with relevant arguments.
6. The story is a satire on modern commercial interests where everything is subordinate to money. What are your views on this? Support your answer with relevant arguments.