Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Phoenix Jackson makes her biannual visit to Natchez, walking for half a day in December to reach the medical clinic at which she receives, as charity, soothing medicine for her grandson. Having swallowed lye, he has suffered without healing for several years. Phoenix has made the journey enough times that her path to Natchez seems a worn path. Furthermore, part of that is the old Natchez trace, a road worn deep into the Mississippi landscape by centuries of travelers returning northeast after boating down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
Phoenix is the oldest person she knows, though she does not know exactly how old she is, only that she was too old to go to school at the end of the Civil War and therefore never learned to read. Mainly because of her age, the simple walk from her remote home into Natchez is a difficult enough journey to take on epic proportions. She fears delays caused by wild animals getting in her way: foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, and raccoons. She comfortably reflects that snakes and alligators hibernate in December. Thorn bushes and barbed-wire fences, log bridges and hills are major barriers for her. The cornfield she must cross from her initial path to a wagon road is a maze, haunted to her nearsightedness by a ghost that turns out to be a scarecrow. She must also struggle against her tendency to slip into a dream and forget her task, as when she stops for a rest and dreams of a boy offering her a piece of cake. Her perception of these obstacles emphasizes her intense physical, mental, and moral effort to complete this journey.
Despite the difficulty of her trip, she clearly enjoys her adventure. She talks happily to the landscape, warning the small animals...
(The entire section is 700 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“A Worn Path” is a simple story about a difficult journey. The protagonist, Phoenix Jackson, is an elderly African American woman who lives in the country. On a cold December day, she is walking to town along the path that she always takes. Along the way, she encounters various obstacles: thorny bushes, a creek, a barbed-wire fence, a swamp. Then she waves her cane to drive away a dog, loses her balance, and falls. Fortunately, a white man happens along and helps her up. Without knowing it, he drops a nickel, and she pockets it, though she feels guilty about stealing.
After arriving in town, Phoenix gets a lady to lace up her shoe, explaining that she must be properly dressed to go into a big building. Once in the doctor’s office, she has to be reminded that she has come to get medicine for her grandson, who swallowed lye several years before. The receptionist offers her some pennies, and Phoenix hints that five of them would be a nickel. With her two nickels, Phoenix will buy her grandson a little paper windmill. The story ends with her making her way laboriously back down the stairs.
In “A Worn Path,” the author utilizes the conventions of the heroic journey to describe the adventures of a woman who is unaware of her own heroism. The simple style that Welty uses for her account of Phoenix Jackson’s odyssey makes the story even more effective and poignant.