"A Worn Path" Welty, Eudora
The following entry presents criticism on Welty's short story "A Worn Path," first published in The Atlantic Monthly in February 1940, and later in A Curtain of Green, 1941. See also Eudora Welty Short Story Criticism.
"A Worn Path" is considered one of Welty's most distinguished and frequently studied works of short fiction. Deceptively simple in tone and scope, the story is structured upon a journey motif that incorporates a rich texture of symbolic meaning. According to Alfred Appel, "'A Worn Path' passes far beyond its regionalism because of its remarkable fusion of various elements of myth and legend, which invest the story with a religious meaning that can be universally felt."
Plot and Major Characters"A Worn Path" describes the journey of an elderly black woman named Phoenix Jackson who walks from her home to the city of Natchez to get medicine for her sick grandson. The landscape as Phoenix perceives it becomes a primary focus of the vividly evoked narrative; nature is depicted as alternately beautiful and as an impediment to Phoenix's progress. As she walks, she struggles against intense fatigue and poor eyesight, as well as such obstacles as thorn bushes and barbed wire. The combined effects of her old age, her poor vision, and her poetic view of the world heighten the lyricism and symbolism of the narrative. For example, she mistakes a scarecrow for a dancing "ghost" until she draws close enough to touch its empty sleeve. A particularly tense episode occurs when she encounters a white hunter who appears friendly at first, but then makes a condescending suggestion that she is probably "going to town to see Santa Claus." When he inadvertently drops a nickel, Phoenix distracts him and manages to pick it up, feeling that she is stealing as she does so. The hunter suddenly points his gun at her, and while he may have seen her pick up the nickel, it is unclear what his actual motivation is for this threatening gesture. Phoenix, however, does not appear afraid; the hunter lowers his gun and she manages to continue on her way unharmed and without returning the nickel. Finally reaching the "shining" city of Natchez, Phoenix enters the "big building"—presumably a hospital—where a nurse questions her about her grandson, asking if he has died. Phoenix remains strangely quiet at first, as if deaf to the nurse's questions. She then apologizes, claiming that her memory had suddenly failed her—that for a moment, she could not remember why she had made her long journey. The story concludes with Phoenix's heartfelt description of her grandson, whose throat was injured several years ago when he swallowed lye. She declares that he is not dead, receives the medicine for him, along with another nickel, with which she decides to buy him a Christmas present—a "little windmill."
Phoenix Jackson emerges in "A Worn Path" as a character who endures; she is the symbol of perseverance, stamina, and life in the face of hardship and death. Commentators have noted that her sheer fortitude in making the long journey on foot and alone points to these qualities, as does the mythological significance of her name, Phoenix—an Egyptian bird symbolizing resurrection. Christian symbolism is also apparent in the narrative. For example, the fact that the story is set during the Christmas season has led some critics to associate Phoenix's journey with that of a religious pilgrimage; her selfless concern for her grandson is interpreted as representing the true spirit of giving and self-sacrifice. While much of the story's substance rests on the imagistic and symbolic use of language, the action of the plot also shows Phoenix in direct conflict with the outside world—a society run by white people who have little respect or understanding for her situation. A man hunting in the forest assumes that she is going to town merely "to see Santa Claus," while a nurse dismisses her as a "charity" case and offers little sympathy for the plight of Phoenix's sick grandson. Because the story is completely free of authorial intrusion or explanatory commentary, the images and events that occur in the narrative remain open to a variety of reader interpretations.
Critical discussion of "A Worn Path" largely has been concerned with thematic interpretation of the work, particularly the story's racial, mythological, and Christian motifs. Focusing predominantly on the story's Christian motifs, Neil D. Isaacs viewed Phoenix's Christmas journey as a "religious pilgrimage" with an ironic end that suggests "greed, corruption, cynicism." Also emphasizing Christian themes in the work, Sara Treeman pointed to story's theme of self-sacrifice, noting that the worn path "is worn because this is the symbolic journey made by all who are capable of self-sacrifice, of whom Christ is the archetype." The presence of secular mythology in the text has also been the subject of discussion by such critics as Dan Donlan, who perceived the prominence of the Egyptian myth of the Phoenix in the structure and symbolism of the story. Frank Ardolino argued for a conflation of mythological and Christian interpretations of the work, showing how "along with the Christian motifs of rebirth, the cycles of natural imagery presented create the theme of life emerging from death." The racial element of "A Worn Path" has also been a subject of critical discussion. William Jones commented in 1957 that "[t]he main reason that Miss Welty chose a Negro seems to be that only a relatively simple, uncivilized individual is worthy of representing the powerful forces which inspires such love as hers for her grandchild." John R. Cooley, in contrast, argued for a broader social reading of the story, criticizing the sentiment of the work and accusing Welty of failing to "develop her racial portraits with sufficient sensitivity or depth." Nancy K. Butterworth responded to Cooley's assessment and others with the observation that "[s]uch polemical demythologizings conflict with Welty's persistent refusal to use fiction as a platform, particularly for political or sociological issues, as well as her downplaying and even disavowal of racial implications in her stories."
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It is a bright but cold morning in December when an old woman with the mythologically-infused name Phoenix Jackson sets out along a worn path she knows well. Armed with a cane in her hand and red rag to keep her head warm, Phoenix may possess a name endowed with academic vitality, but her existence is that of a thousand other old Negro women who have walked along similarly worn paths throughout a Southern United States defined by its racism toward people like Phoenix on the basis of nothing more than the color of her skin.
When there is movement in thick vegetation lining the path, she vocally threatens the mysterious animal creatures who may be living there and steadfastly refuses to push back or pull up. When the path starts to run uphill, Phoenix complains that it feels as chains are around her feet, but still she presses on. Once she reaches the top of the hill she rests only a moment to look at what is spread out before her. A thorny bush grabs hold of her dress, but she finds the strength to pull herself free and keep up the momentum. When she reaches the bottom of the hill, she is forced to make her way over a creek by inching across a fallen long. Once on the other side, she finally takes just a moment to rest. As she does, she is surprised by the sight of a small boy appearing before her holding a plate on which was the offer a piece of cake. Upon trying to reach for the cake, however, all she gets is air and then boys is no longer there.
Setting off once again brings the old woman to another obstruction: a fence of barbed wire under which she must crawl on her hands and knees. Once on the other side, she makes her way through a cornfield complete with buzzards and a scarecrow. Next comes a ravine where she stops to take a sip of water from a spring. Then it is through a swampy area and a long stretch of road on which she encounters a threatening black dog. When the dogs comes at her, it is punished with a snap of the old woman’s cane. A white man—a hunter—helps her from the spill she took into a ditch after the dog attack. He starts out nice by asking her if she all right and then asks where she is going. When she answers that she is headed into town, he makes a racist comment about what he assumes to know about black people. During their conversation, he loses a nickel from his pocket and she takes it and slips it into her apron pocket. His last words are warning her to go back home and stay out of harm, but she is determined to fulfill mission.
The city of Natchez, Mississippi is her destination and it is festooned with Christmas decorations and lights. She enters a building and goes up to a woman seated at a desk who assumes that Phoenix is another charity case. When asked what is bother her, Phoenix does not respond, leading the attendant to rudely question if she is deaf by vocally asking the old woman if she cannot hear. A nurse appears who recognizes Phoenix and informs the attendant that she is there to visit her grandson who swallowed lye a few years earlier. When the nurse inquires if the medicine the doctor gave did anything to improve the condition of her grandson’s throat and Phoenix once again does not reply, the nurse complains that she is wasting their valuable time. As if waking from a dream, Phoenix apologizes for a temporary loss of memory. She informs the nurse that her grandson’s throat closes up on occasion and he has trouble swallowing. For this reason, more medicine is required. When the nurse brings her another bottle of medicine, she hands it over and says “Charity” before checking her accounts book.
The attendant hands Phoenix a nickel as a Christmas gift. The old woman takes it and then removes the nickel she put into her apron after the white hunter dropped it. Holding them both in her hand, Phoenix announces she is going to use the ten cents to buy a paper windmill after a Christmas present for her grandson. Then, with a nod, she leaves.
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