“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 regarded blacks. He also calls her “Granny,” a term common for older African-American women. Often whiles would call older blacks “Aunt,” “Granny,” or “Uncle” as a way of denying them their dignity and individuality. In another example of this, the nurse calls her “aunl Phoenix” instead of Ihe more formal “Mrs. Jackson.” Although no one in the story is actually rude or discriminatory towards Phoenix, Welly demonstrates the subtle persecutions that blacks suffer in a white world.
Duty and Responsibility
Phoenix Jackson is mobilized by her sense of duty to her grandson. Because she is the only person her grandson has to rely on—”We is the only two left in the world,” she tells the nurse—she is determined to make it to town to obtain the medicine that will soothe his injured throat. Her sense of responsibility dominates her personality, overcoming her encroaching senility, her poor eyesight, and her difficulty in walking. Phoenix relates her determination with a sense of urgency to the hunter: she tells the hunter: “I bound to go to town, mister…. The time come around.” In the character of Phoenix, Welty relates the virtue in doing selfless things for others.
The nurse also has a duty and a responsibility to keep giving Phoenix the medicine as long as she keeps coming to get it. She says that “the doctor said as long as you came to get it, you could have it But it’s an obstinate case.” The attendant gives Phoenix a nickel to spend, but she seems to do it out of a sense of duty because it is Christmas time. Even the hunter, who helps Phoenix out of the ditch, and the young woman on the street, who ties her shoes, seem to act out of duty, not out of compassion or love. Only Phoenix’s actions—making the arduous journey into town for her grandson—transcend responsibility and are motivated by a sense of true love.
A minor theme in “A Worn Path” concerns guilt and innocence. Phoenix feels guilty when she picks up the nickel that falls from the pocket of the white hunter. She indicates in her words to the hunter that she believes that she deserves to be shot for the offense: “I seen plenty go off closer by, in my day, and for less than what I done.” Even though the hunter has lied to her, claiming that he does not have any money, she knows it is not right to retaliate through artifice on her own part. However, other actions that should inspire guilt—the hunter aiming a loaded gun at her face, for instance—do not. The attendant at the doctor’s office, perhaps feeling guilty for her impatient comment,”Are you deaf? ” may be offering amends when she gives Phoenix the nickel. The symbol of innocence in the story is surely the grandson, a helpless young boy who is unable to care for himself and whose throat periodically closes up, causing him to gasp for breath. His innocence is protected by the caring and love his grandmother provides. Readers wonder, knowing how old and frail Phoenix is, what will become of him once she dies and he is left without anyone to care for him.
Phoenix’s name points to the theme of resurrection in “A Worn Path.” The phoenix was the bird in ancient mythology that rose from its own ashes every 500 years to begin a new life cycle. Phoenix Jackson, whose statement that she was “too old at the Surrender” to go to school—1865—hints that she is probably over eighty at the time the story takes place, but she refuses to die or give up. Phoenix’s ritual journey into town symbolizes the continual rising-up of the old woman, like the bird she is allied with. Her description given at the beginning of the story also seems to suggest fire and life: “a golden color ran underneath, 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, still black, and with an odor like copper.”
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Eudora Welty, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.