In "A Worn Path," how might Phoenix be considered to be in the grip of large and indifferent social and political forces?
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Whether Phoenix would have been treated much differently at the clinic if she were not an African-American (Negro, at that time) is dubious. Obviously, she is not rejected by this clinic which she could have been in the time setting of this story, the depression. (The story was published in 1941--long before Civil Rights Legislation.) So, it would seem that the insensitivity comes not from Phoenix's race as from the fact that the nurse mentions, she is "a charity case." After all, anyone in America knows that if a person does not have good insurance, he or she will wait behind those who do, even in emergency rooms.
Typically, in America all places of business are reluctant to serve people who have no money. Hospitals and clinics are no exception, other than the fact that there are certain prohibitions to their rejecting people entirely. Therefore, the treatment of Phoenix is clearly a socio-economic one; there is no concern for her mental lapses because she has no money. Were she covered by Blue Cross/Blue Shield or other high-rated insurance providers the medical team would have been scrambling to test her. But, she is poor and uneducated and old, which supercedes all race questions. Indeed, while there are episodes of racial prejudice, Eudora Welty's short story "A Worn Path" really addresses a more universal theme about the trials, wisdom, and dignity of old age.
Not only is Phoenix facing the forces of nature that range against her, the more powerful and disturbing forces that she has to endure illustrate the larger forces of society and politics that indicate the racism that impedes Phoenix at every turn. When I first read the story, the two most disturbing examples of racism for me was when the hunter "lifted his gun and pointed it at Phoenix." It is clear that he has no intention of firing the gun at her, which in a sense makes it worse, because he is treating violence as a joke.
Secondly, and perhaps more shocking in a sense, although it is less violent, it is clear from the way in which Phoenix is treated when she finally makes it to the doctor's surgery that she has to face massive prejudice. Note how she is treated when she arrives:
"A charity case, I suppose," said an attendant, who sat at the desk before her... "Speak up, Grandma... What's your name? We must have your history, you know. Have you been here before? What seems to be the trouble with you? ... Are you deaf?" cried the attendant.
It is clear from the way that the attendant patronises Phoenix that she, and all African Americans like her, are in the grip of massive social and political forces designed to keep them an oppressed minority, excluded from the same human decency that whites are entitled to.
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