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 that help the reader form a mind’s eye picture of the action. Similes are direct comparisons that use words such as “like” or “as” to link the two ideas. One such simile in this story occurs in the description of Phoenix Jackson’s face: “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 ” The narrator describes her cane as being “limber as a buggy whip.” As Phoenix walks across the log, she looks “like a festival figure in some parade.” She encounters big dead trees “like black men with one arm.” Other similes in the story appeal to various senses, such as smell: “she gave off perfume like the red roses in the summer.” In touching the scarecrow, Phoenix finds “a coat and inside that an emptiness, cold as ice.”
Setting is crucial to the purpose of this story because Welty conceived the idea for the tale of Phoenix Jackson as she sat with a painter friend out on the Old Natchez Trace. The Trace is an old highway that runs from Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez, Mississippi. By 1800 it was the busiest in the American South. Phoenix lives “away back off the Old Natchez Trace,” as the nurse in the doctor’s office says. This indicates that Phoenix lives fairly far from Natchez, which means that the journey— compounded by the fact that it is December—is difficult for her. In the rural area, she encounters animals, thorny bushes, ditches, streams to be crossed by logs, barbed-wire fences, and even people. These obstacles underscore how deeply she cares and sacrifices for her grandson. When the narrator tells us at the end of the story that “her slow step began on the stairs, going down,” it indicates that she is faced with a return journey as arduous as the one she just completed. Time is also important in the story: Phoenix says that she was “too old at the Surrender” to go to school. If the story takes place in the time it was written, 1941, Phoenix would be anywhere from 80 to 100 years old. This further magnifies the intensity of her journey and the tragic situation of her grandson’s dependence on her.
Every work of fiction has some kind of conflict, and most obvious one in “A Worn Path” is Phoenix’s struggle against nature and the landscape. The determination Phoenix shows when faced with various hardships on her path help define her character for the reader. Other outward conflicts in the story result from her encounters with the hunter and with the attendant in the doctor’s office. The hunter teases her and points a gun at her; Phoenix remains calm and steady, causing the hunter to exclaim “Well, Granny… you must be a hundred years old, and scared of nothing.” The conflict with the office attendant serves to show another side of Phoenix, her dignity in the face of racial and age discrimination. She refuses to speak to the condescending woman until the nurse comes in and explains who she is. When the attendant, possibly out of guilt, offers to give Phoenix a few pennies from her purse, Phoenix “stiffly” says, “Five pennies is a nickel.” Through the use of the conflicts, which seem ordinary, Welty shows how daily life can be a struggle for someone like Phoenix.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Eudora Welty, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.