A Worn Path, by Eudora Welty, is a story of a fierce old woman, and of a love that knows no bounds. This Penlighten article provides a summary and analysis of this moving story.
Before writing ‘The Worn Path’, Eudora Welty was a publicity agent for Works Progress Administration in the ’30s. During that time, she captured many moments of the rural life of black Americans on her camera. Phoenix Jackson’s story is very similar to the women she came across at the time.
A Worn Path is a book set in 1940s’ America, where black Americans were still treated differently from white Americans. An allegorical story that depicts differential treatment, and a love that knows no boundaries, it is truly touching. The main character of the story is Phoenix Jackson, an elderly woman who makes a very perilous journey to the city of Natchez, encountering many dangers along the way. However, she is not deterred and makes it to her destination. The story is made enjoyable by the light humor that the author maintains in the form of a monologue the old woman keeps up with herself.
The story has been written in first person, with the author only narrating the incidents that happen on that day. It is otherwise left to the reader to interpret Phoenix’s character. The writer does not provide any information about the kind of person Phoenix is, except for her physical appearance. We are left wondering about the reason for her journey right till the end, and that makes it all the more moving. The following paragraphs provide a summary and brief analysis of the story, and also a character analysis of the various people that we come across in it.
✦ Phoenix Jackson is a very old African-American woman who is making a journey to Natchez, through a perilous road. The title of the story seems to have been taken from the fact that she has made this journey numerous times, and the path is now worn to her. She is going to Natchez to bring back medicine for her grandson, who is suffering for years because of swallowing lye.
✦ She maintains a monologue with herself the entire way, and also talks to the nature. For instance, she makes her weariness about wild animals evident when she says, “Out of my way, all you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons and wild animals!. . . Keep out from under these feet, little bob-whites… Keep the big wild hogs out of my path.” She goes up a steep hill through a forest of pine trees, and then down again through oaks. Along the way, her dress gets caught in a thorn bush, and she has to struggle to free herself. By this time, she realizes that afternoon has already arrived.
✦ Walking on, she soon encounters a creek with log laid across. She crosses it with her eyes closed, glad that she relies more on her feet than her failing eyesight to guide her. On crossing safely, she says, “I wasn’t as old as I thought.” However, she sits down to rest. When she is resting, a little boy approaches her with a piece of cake, but when she reaches for it, there’s no one there, a sign that she is perhaps hallucinating.
✦ She begins walking again and approaches a barbed wire fence. She crawls through it carefully, so as not to get injured. Then she comes across a field, where she has an encounter with a scarecrow, who she first mistakes for a ghost. On finding out its true identity, she happily does a little dance with it!
✦ She is nearly attacked by a dog down the road, and in an attempt to hit him with her cane, she falls backward into a ditch. There again, she sees someone reach out to her, but when she extends her hand, there’s nothing. Soon, a hunter comes along and pulls her out. They exchange brief words, and he thinks she is going into town to see Santa Claus. He keeps calling her ‘granny’. When she sees a nickel fall out of the hunter’s pocket, she diverts his attention and picks it up, believing that God is watching her steal.
✦ She finally reaches Natchez. She can see the steeple, the cabins, the children running around, people bustling about. The town is alive with the spirit of Christmas. She waits briefly on the sidewalk. Stopping a woman coming towards her, arms laden with gifts, Phoenix asks whether the kind lady would tie her shoe laces for her, since she is too old to do it herself. The woman obliges. Phoenix continues walking on, until she finally reaches a big building. Entering it, she climbs the towering staircase, reaching the doctor’s office. Since she cannot read, she needs to rely on her memory.
✦ Once there, she seems to go into a trance. When the attendant asks her why she has come, she doesn’t seem to hear, and continues staring at the wall. The nurse enters and explains to the attendant, who the old lady is and why she is here. She then asks Phoenix to take a seat and inquires about her grandson. Phoenix does not respond until the nurse asks whether her grandson is dead; that’s when she suddenly comes back to the present. She tells the nurse that he is not dead, he will recover, and that she will keep coming for his medicine as long as he needs it.
✦ The attendant gives Phoenix the medicine and marks it as a charity case. She also gives Phoenix a nickel as a Christmas ‘gift’. Phoenix thanks them, rises, and begins to leave. Her last line explains why she collects the two nickels; she wants to buy her grandson a pinwheel for Christmas. She then turns and begins descending the steps for her journey back home.
The story depicts the old woman’s undying love for her grandson, and the fact that she will do anything to protect him. Her name is symbolic of the real phoenix bird, which also flies great distances to heal people with its tears.
Her appearance is described as “…a golden color ran underneath [her skin], and the two knobs of her cheeks were illumined by a yellow burning under the dark. Under the red rag her hair came down on her neck in the frailest of ringlets…” The phoenix bird has red feathers with yellow-golden wings.
This bird is known to live for a thousand years, after which it flies to the sun city of Heliopolis, to burn to ashes and be reborn. In the story, Phoenix Jackson makes regular trips to Natchez. And she is very old, as suggested by the lines, “Her eyes were blue with age. Her skin had a pattern all its own of numberless branching wrinkles and as though a whole little tree stood in the middle of her forehead…”
Another likeness to the bird is when she enters the clinic, and goes into a trance – “There was a fixed and ceremonial stiffness over her body.”, and then “there came a flicker and then a flame of comprehension across her face, and she spoke…” – which symbolizes the death and rebirth of the phoenix.
The hunter rescues Phoenix from the ditch, as she is unable to get out herself. He does not feel real compassion towards her, and even points his gun at her as a crude joke.
This woman helps Phoenix by tying her shoelaces for her. Although she seems a little rude when she says, “What do you want, Grandma?”, she does do the favor for the old lady.
The attendant is the woman in the clinic who asks Phoenix why she is there. On getting no response, she even throws in a brash, “Are you deaf?”. She is the same woman who gives Phoenix a nickel for Christmas.
The nurse is the lady that knows Phoenix’s reason for visiting the clinic. She asks her to take a seat, and hands her the medicine. She keeps calling her ‘Aunt Phoenix’.
Some of the themes dealt with, in the story are love, racial bias, and determination. These are explained in brief below.
The last few lines reveal to the reader the real reason for Phoenix’s journey, and the intensity of her love toward her grandson. The reader realizes that all she went through, she did out of affection for her grandson. Her age or nearsightedness did not deter her.
Phoenix’s love for her grandchild gave her the strength and determination to carry on despite facing so many hurdles and risking her own life. The dangerous road, the dark jungles, the constant danger of being attacked by wild animals, putting her life in peril, she faced it all and reached her destination. She did not give up when the thorn bush caught her skirt, or when she was nearly killed by a dog, or when she had to crawl under a barb wired fence; she kept going. It shows her indomitable spirit, and the fact that she would do anything for the child.
Although not dealt with directly, the story gives small hints of the fact that Phoenix did face discrimination based on her color. For instance, the hunter calls her ‘granny’ and also refers to her as ‘you old colored people’. His assumption that black folks will do anything to see Santa Claus is also a reference to the mindset of white people towards black people at that time. The pedestrian lady and the clinic attendant call her grandma. The nurse calls her Aunt Phoenix. However, nobody talks to her disrespectfully or insultingly.
The phoenix is a bird that flies great distances to help people, by healing them with its tears. Likewise, Phoenix also travels through many perils, despite her age, to get the medicine for her grandson.
Big dead trees
The words, “Big dead trees, like black men with one arm, were standing in the purple stalks of the withered cotton field.”, may symbolize the suffering endured by black people during the era of slavery.
It possibly symbolizes the immortality of the phoenix bird. It is the only plant that remains evergreen in the harsh winter. This can be likened to Phoenix’s brave and undying spirit to survive and obtain the medicine, despite all the hardships.
The marble cake
This can be likened to all the vows and commitments made to black people at the time, regarding equal rights and freedom, which never saw the light of day. The sentence says “…when a little boy brought her a plate with a slice of marble cake on it she spoke to him. “That would be acceptable,” she said. But when she went to take it there was just her own hand in the air.”
Phoenix and her grandson have been likened with birds in some instances. The lines, “He wear a little patch quilt and peep out holding his mouth open like a little bird.” and “[Her cane] made a grave and persistent noise in the still air, that seemed meditative like the chirping of a solitary little bird.”, are two examples.
The line, “…she walked slowly in the dark pine shadows, moving a little from side to side in her steps, with the balanced heaviness and lightness of a pendulum in a grandfather clock.”, may be a symbolism of life and death. It appears to depict how a phoenix bird, when old, is between the lightness of life and heaviness of death. This also depicts Phoenix’s old age.
The Worn Path is a story that everyone must read. It teaches the power of selfless love, and also that there are people in the world who make sacrifices for those that they care about. Most of all, it teaches us to never give up hope.