Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path,” written in 1940, is one of the author’s most frequently anthologized stories, but this by no means indicates that it is her easiest. There is a depth of ambiguity in it. Twentieth-century critics have chosen, for the most part, to examine the role race plays in the story and through that to either condemn Welty or exalt her for her views. But race is certainly not the story’s only concern. Questions of age, service, dedication, and myth also inform the story.
However, it is with race that any discussion of Welly’s story must begin. Welty comes from Mississippi, in many ways the most notoriously troubled of Southern states. Born there in 1909 (to Northern parents), she grew up and has spent most of her life in Jackson. She grew up in an era where the Civil War and Reconstruction were still remembered by many of her neighbors, and she herself has lived through the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s and the Southern renaissance of the 1980s and 1990s. However, politics very rarely enters her work directly. Her stories deal with race relations on a personal level.
Welty has discussed the genesis of “A Worn Path” in numerous interviews. The inspiration for Phoenix Jackson was an ancient black woman whom Welty saw walking across the countryside as Welty was sitting under a tree near the Natchez Trace with a painter friend.”I watched her cross that landscape in the half-distance,” she explains,”and when I got home I wrote that story that she had made me think of.” In another interview, she added that “I knew she was going somewhere. I knew she was bent on an errand, even at that distance. It was not anything casual. It was a purposeful, measured journey she was making—you wouldn’t go on an errand like that—unless it were for someone else, you know. Unless it were an emergency.”
“A Worn Path” traces the journey of an ancient black woman who walks to Natchez, Mississippi, in order to obtain medicine for her grandson, who permanently injured himself by swallowing lye. On this, most of her critics agree, but that is as far as they go. One group holds that Welly’s portrayal of the black race through her main character, Phoenix Jackson, is eminently sympathetic; another feels that Welty shares with many other Southern writers a tendency to portray blacks as long-suffering and enduring, and in doing so robs them of their true complexity as human beings.
Crucial to any assessment of this question is whether Phoenix Jackson is intended to stand as a representative of her race. Certainly, she plays into one stereotypical Southern image of blacks: the ancient, plodding, superstitious grandmother who talks to herself. Welty seems to undercut this image by introducing the hunter, who treats Jackson as precisely that kind of a stereotype.”I know you old colored people!” he tells her. “Wouldn’t miss going to town to see Santa Claus!” He seems like a buffoon here, but when he drops his nickel and she picks it up, critics see the action as either indicative of another pejorative stereotype of blacks (craftiness and dishonesty) or as illustrative of her superiority over him. Similarly, critics disagree on the significance of the white woman in Natchez tying Jackson’s shoe. Is this an indication, as one critic holds, of “courtesy warranted by virtue of her age and her ‘fealty’ to the white race,” or is it a comical representation of black helplessness?
The position that Welty’s characterization of Jackson relies heavily on stereotypes is quite convincing. There is a long tradition of white Southern writers exalting the primitiveness of blacks: a move that, while not racist in intent (their primitiveness is used to teach more “sophisticated” whites about the virtues of simplicity), is somewhat demeaning in effect. If Jackson is meant to represent blacks as a whole, what are we to make of her “naivete and helplessness”? If her great age is in one respect an asset, does it not also suggest that blacks are changeless and eternal? The final words in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, “They endure,” is his summary assessment of the state of blacks in the South. Certainly, he has respect for their “endurance,” but is it not also patronizing to confer only this compliment upon an entire race of people? Welty’s critics still wrestle over whether she grants blacks sufficient human diversity, or whether, like her fellow Mississippian Faulkner, she treats them too much as simple symbols of endurance.
Welty herself, in 1965, anticipated this conflict, and argued that it was off the mark. In her essay “Must the Novelist Crusade?” she shifts the question, saying that the relationship between the races cannot be separated from other relationships between people.”There are relationships of blood, of the passions and affections, of thought and spirit and deed. This is the relationship between the races. How can one kind of relationship be set apart from the others? Like a great root system of an old and long-established growing plant, they are all tangled up together; to separate them you would have to cleave the plant itself from top to bottom.” The very nature of her metaphor of the “long-established plant,” though, seems to many critics to subtly defend a slow pace of change in the South: this situation is very old, she seems to be saying, and we cannot rush things.
The other primary approach to this story has been to examine its mythological underpinnings. Phoenix Jackson’s name is a reference to the mythological “phoenix”—a mythical bird that lives in the desert for 500-600 years and then sets itself on fire, only to rise again from its own ashes, and is a popular symbol for immortality. Certainly, age plays a significant part in the story. If we accept that the story is set in Welty’s present, i.e. at the time when she wrote the story, then the “present” is 1940. Jackson tells the scarecrow: “My senses is gone. I too old. I the oldest people I ever know.” When the hunter asks her how old she is, she replies,”There is no telling, mister.” However, if what she tells the nurse is true—that she was too old to go to school when Lee surrendered in 1865—then she must be nearly a hundred years old. Yet, like the phoenix, she rises to makes periodic trips to Natchez to get medicine for her grandson.
The season in which the story takes place— Christmas time—reinforces the theme of rebirth. If we see the story as a Christian allegory, then the marble cake that Jackson dreams of suggests the Communion wafers and her crossing of the cornfield suggests the parting of the Red Sea. Also, the soothing medicine which she gives to her permanently sick grandson can be seen as God’s grace, and Jackson herself as a Christ figure. In addition, the difficulties which Jackson endures on her way to Natchez can either represent the temptations of Christ in the desert or the stations of the cross.
A number of critics have questioned whether or not Jackson’s grandson is even alive. The story is especially affecting if we know that he is already dead, Roland Bartel proposes, and Jackson’s apparent bout of forgetfulness and senility in the doctor’s office could be her nagging realization that her grandson is, in fact, dead. Welty responded personally to this question in a 1974 essay, acknowledging the possibility that Jackson’s grandson is no longer alive, but insisting that she “must assume that the boy is alive” and admonishing readers that”it is the journey—that is the story.” Given that, we must return to the story’s mythological resonances. In addition to the aforementioned Christian parallels, the story also suggests Dante, the Italian author of the epic Divine Comedy. The dog, the hunter, and even the descent down the stairs at the end of the story parallel incidents in Dante’s Inferno.
“A Worn Path” is finally a simple story, though. Welly’s short tale of an old woman’s journey to get medicine for her grandson is valuable simply as that, and the starkness of its simplicity is too often undervalued. That very simplicity gives it the ability to support so many political and mythological interpretations. Welty even suggests another, far more personal analogy for Phoenix’s journey: her own journey towards the creation of “great fiction.” “Like Phoenix, you work all your life to find your way, through all the obstructions and the false appearances and the upsets you may have brought on yourself, to reach a meaning—And finally too, like Phoenix, you have to assume that what your are working in aid of is life, not death.”
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Eudora Welty, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.
Greg Barnhisel, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.