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Clearly “A Worn Path” draws on the myth and symbolism of the phoenix, the golden bird that periodically consumes itself in flames so that it, rising from the ashes, may be renewed. Phoenix Jackson renews her ancient body on each visit to the doctor’s remote office. The chief clues: the woman’s name (“Phoenix”), the story’s early description of her (her stick makes a sound “like the chirping of a solitary little bird”; “a golden color ran underneath, and the two knobs of her cheeks were illuminated by a yellow burning under the dark”), a reference to cyclic time (“I bound to go to town, mister. The time come around”—and the time is Christmas, i.e., a time of renewal), her “ceremonial stiffness” in the doctor’s office, and finally, the words “Phoenix rose carefully.”
The myth is wonderfully supported by details, details that are strictly irrelevant (e.g., Phoenix’s deception of the hunter, which nets her a nickel, and her cadging of a nickel’s worth of pennies from the nurse) but that make the character unsentimental and thoroughly convincing.
As a narrative, the story is particularly interesting because exposition takes place from the beginning almost until the very end (paragraph 94). The complication is developing almost coincidentally, for the difficulties Phoenix experiences are also a part of the monumentally difficult conditions of her life. The disclosure about her grandson (paragraphs 78–92) is an additional complication, which is always on Phoenix’s mind, but which we do not learn until the attendants bring up the topic. The story’s climax is the speech by Phoenix in paragraph 94, in which her recognition and determination are revealed. The conclusion is marked by a continued focus upon her as she retreats down the stairs with the intention of buying a toy before returning home.
The plot is built up as a contrast between Phoenix, on one side, and the symbolism of the forces of poverty, natural obstacles, distance, age, and the illness of her grandson, on the other. One might also interpret the plot in terms of nobility and strength of character standing against forces of destructiveness. These forces are not malevolent, but are shown rather to be a part of the natural course of things. Because there is no one actively attending to Phoenix and her grandson, her plight may be seen as reflecting the indifference and lack of concern of a social and political system that ignores the aged and ill, particularly among African Americans. The story, however, does not insist on the possible political-economic criticism, but instead reveals the pathos of Phoenix’s situation.
There are numerous literary elements in the story. Irony is found in the conclusion. After making her dangerous and difficult journey, when Phoenix reaches her destination, she momentarily forgets why she has come. Symbolism is present, also. The path she follows, the "worn path," symbolizes her unconditional, continuing love and commitment to her grandson. The path is long, arduous, and dangerous to her very life, but she follows it again and again out of love and sacrifice. External conflict is developed in the story through Phoenix's efforts to prevail over her physical environment and the obstacles it presents--the cold, the stream she must cross, the fence she must go through, the scarecrow that frightens her, etc. Once she reaches what is most likely a county health office, she must deal with the arrogance and hatefulness of the receptionist. Internal conflict is also suggested in this scene. Phoenix endures the woman's humiliating treatment in order to get what she came for, the "soothing medicine" for her grandson. A sign of Phoenix's internal conflict can be found in the muscle that twitches in her face as she is being treated with such disrespect.
In the first paragraph there is an excellent piece of imagery where Phoenix Jackson is compared to a pendulum:
She was very old and small and she walked slowly in the dark pine shadows, moving a little from side to side in her steps, with the balanced heaviness and lightness of a pendulum in a grandfather clock.
This simile therefore describes her movement.
Pheonix's name is an allusion to the mythical bird that in its life time burns up in flames and then rises again from its own ashes to become a strong and fierce bird once again. This is certainly witnesses through the story when Phoenix overcomes various obstacles, such as the threat of the white man, and seems renewed in her perseverance in getting to town for the medicine for her grandson.
The "worn path" is a symbol for Phoenix's love for her grandson. Phoenix faces the challenges of the cold weather, rough terrain, white hunter, and patronizing people at the doctor's office so that she can get medicine for her ill grandson. The title suggests that this path is worn from Phoenix making the journey over and over again. Phoenix will make this "journey of love" as long as she has the ability to walk.
The description of Phoenix in the second paragraph is striking:
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, but 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...
Phoenix, who shares her name with the mythical bird that rises from its own ashes, is described using colors that might resemble the bird (yellow & red).
I've always liked the nickel as a symbol in "The Worn Path," as it points out a contrast which is one of the major themes in this work. This is a poor woman in the strongest sense of the word, and when she furtively picks up and keeps that nickel, despite her guilt at having done so, we understand her selfishness. In contrast, this is a poor woman who, despite every possible physical and emotional obstacle, is as unselfish as one can possibly be. The nickel serves as a reminder of those two things in this story, as it's not for herself that she takes and keeps the coin.
Perhaps two of the most significant symbols are the character's name Phoenix and the worn path itself. The Phoenix is a mythical bird that rises renewed from the ashes every 500 years. This is definitely something that Mrs. Jackson has had to do over and over again. The renewal part might be debateable. The worn path is one she has traveled her entire life as she has always been one of the least significant members of the society in which she lives.
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