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 . . . Read More
War and Poverty
Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path” was published in 1941, the same year the United States entered World War II. Europe had already been involved in the conflict for several years since Adolph Hitler began enlarging Germany’s empire. Germany declared war on the United States in December, after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the U.S.’s declaration of war against Japan. Set against the brewing global conflict, Welty’s tale of rural life in the South may seem out of context for the times. Phoenix Jackson’s world is much smaller than the global world of international warfare. Her world revolves around her home, her grandson, and the rural life of Natchez, Mississippi.
The story was inspired in part by the work Welty was doing in the early 1940s for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was established by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1934 as a way to put many . . . Read More
Point of View
“A Worn Path” is told from a third-person limited point of view. This allows the reader to empathize with Phoenix, because her thoughts and actions are shown. Yet, in third-person, the reader is allowed to view Phoenix from a distance, and thereby see her as others see her.
The most obvious symbol in the story is Phoenix Jackson’s comparison to the mythological bird, the phoenix. Dressed in vivid colors, Phoenix’s resilience is underscored by her comparison with a bird that rises from the ashes every 500 years. Additionally, Phoenix’s grandson is described by the woman as “[wearing] a little patch quilt and peep out holding his mouth open like a little bird.”
Eudora Welty has been praised from early on for her use of language. In using similes, she makes vivid comparisons . . . Read More
“A Worn Path” is Eudora Welty’s story of an old African-American woman’s ritual journey. Its themes are elicited from the symbol of the journey as well as the encounters the old woman has on her journey. Critics have praised Welly’s use of language, myth, and symbol in this deceptively simple story.
Race and Racism
Issues of race often inform Welly’s fiction for the fact lhal so much of her fiction is sel in Mississippi during the 1940s and 1950s. Phoenix’s brief encounters on her journey typify the views of many Southern whites during the era. A white hunter helps her out of a ditch but patronizes her and trivializes her journey: “I know you old colored people! Wouldn’t miss going to town to see Santa Claus!” He also taunts her by pointing his loaded gun al her and asking, “Doesn’t the gun scare you?” Through these exchanges, Welly shows how some whiles . . . Read More
Phoenix’s grandson does not appear in the story, but his medical condition is the reason for the old woman’s journey. Having swallowed lye (a strong alkaline substance used in making soap) several years ago, the boy’s throat is permanently damaged. His grandmother is the only relative he has left, and she makes the trip to town to receive medicine that soothes the pain. There has been no change in his condition, Phoenix tells the nurse, he sits with his “mouth open like a little bird.” She also says that though he suffers, he has “a sweet look.” Though Phoenix says he is not dead, some critics have theorized that he is.
The hunter encounters Phoenix after she has fallen into a ditch, the unfortunate result of an encounter with one of his dogs. He helps her up, demonstrating his willingness to assist a person in need. But his . . . Read More
Eudora Welty’s short story opens on a chilly December morning. An elderly African-American woman named Phoenix Jackson is making her way, slowly but surely, through the woods, tapping an umbrella on the ground in front of her as she walks. Her shoes are untied. While she taps along, she talks to the animals in the woods, telling them to keep out of her way. As the path goes up a hill, she complains about how difficult walking becomes. It becomes evident that she has made this journey many times before; she is familiar with all the twists and turns in the trail. She talks aimlessly to herself. Her eyesight is poor, and she catches her skirt in the thorns on a bush.
After walking across a log to traverse a stream, she rests. She imagines a boy bringing her a slice of cake but opens her eyes to find her hand in the air, grasping nothing. The terrain becomes more difficult, and at a certain point she thinks she sees a ghost, but it is only a scarecrow. Blaming the . . . Read More
Nadine Gordimer has been called South Africa’s “First Lady of Letters,” and she is perhaps that country’s most distinguished living fiction writer. The author of many volumes of collected short stories and novels, in addition to numerous lectures, essays, and other works of nonfiction, Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. This international recognition of Gordimer’s work not only confirmed her reputation as an artist, but it also stressed the importance of writing about the effects of apartheid on the people of South Africa. The length of Gordimer’s career—she published her first story when she was thirteen, her first book at twenty-six—has allowed her to document the changes in South African society over the course of several generations.
Throughout her career, Gordimer has insisted that because politics affect all aspects of life, her writing always deals either directly or indirectly with political . . . Read More
Legal Separation of the Races
When Nadime Gordimer published “The Train from Rhodesia” in 1952, South African society was legally divided along racial lines by apartheid. The all-white National Party won control of the government in 1948 and dominated South African politics for much of the next two decades. Black Africans and other non-whites, including those of mixed race heritage, were denied the most basic human rights and forced to live apart from whites in substandard living conditions. They were allowed only disproportionately small representation in government, and by 1960 they were denied all representation. This political exclusion insured a monumental divide in the respective standards of living between whites and non-whites. While whites enjoyed excellent hygiene, health care, food, education and transportation, non-whites, like the old man and the stationmaster’s family in the story, suffered from malnutrition, . . . Read More
“The Train from Rhodesia” begins and ends with the symbol of the train. Nadime structures her story around this metaphor and uses limited third-person narration to tell it. The narrator reveals only the thoughts of the young woman, thus focusing the story around her perspective, even though the stationmaster and his family are introduced to the reader before the train arrives. The woman’s thoughts are conveyed through interruptions in Gordimer’s detailed narrative. These interruptions reveal her moral questions about her husband’s bargaining for the carving: “Everything was turning around inside her. One-and-six. One-and-six.” That no one else’s thoughts are revealed by the narrator further emphasizes the psychological distance between the woman and the other characters in the story.
Symbolism and Imagery
In a story so short, images and . . . Read More
In “The Train from Rhodesia,” a train’s short stop in a poor African village highlights the racial and class barriers that typify South African life in the 1950s. Though only a few pages long, Gordimer’s story encompasses several themes besides racial inequality, including greed, poverty, and conscience.
Race and Racism
In South Africa, apartheid, the legal separation of races, became law in 1947. It is not necessary for Gordimer to mention the race of the characters in the story. Readers in the 1950s understood that the “old native” was black and the rich tourists were white. In a society so harshly divided, Gordimer writes of an instance in which the two races interact, thus revealing the patronizing attitudes of whites towards blacks and the blacks’ virtual enslavement and dependency on the whites. The whites, moreover, are not native to the country; just as the train passengers are . . . Read More