A Worn Path Essay - Critical Essays

A Worn Path, Eudora Welty

Introduction

"A Worn Path" Welty, Eudora

The following entry presents criticism on Welty's short story "A Worn Path," first published in The Atlantic Monthly in February 1940, and later in A Curtain of Green, 1941. See also Eudora Welty Short Story Criticism.

"A Worn Path" is considered one of Welty's most distinguished and frequently studied works of short fiction. Deceptively simple in tone and scope, the story is structured upon a journey motif that incorporates a rich texture of symbolic meaning. According to Alfred Appel, "'A Worn Path' passes far beyond its regionalism because of its remarkable fusion of various elements of myth and legend, which invest the story with a religious meaning that can be universally felt."

Plot and Major Characters

"A Worn Path" describes the journey of an elderly black woman named Phoenix Jackson who walks from her home to the city of Natchez to get medicine for her sick grandson. The landscape as Phoenix perceives it becomes a primary focus of the vividly evoked narrative; nature is depicted as alternately beautiful and as an impediment to Phoenix's progress. As she walks, she struggles against intense fatigue and poor eyesight, as well as such obstacles as thorn bushes and barbed wire. The combined effects of her old age, her poor vision, and her poetic view of the world heighten the lyricism and symbolism of the narrative. For example, she mistakes a scarecrow for a dancing "ghost" until she draws close enough to touch its empty sleeve. A particularly tense episode occurs when she encounters a white hunter who appears friendly at first, but then makes a condescending suggestion that she is probably "going to town to see Santa Claus." When he inadvertently drops a nickel, Phoenix distracts him and manages to pick it up, feeling that she is stealing as she does so. The hunter suddenly points his gun at her, and while he may have seen her pick up the nickel, it is unclear what his actual motivation is for this threatening gesture. Phoenix, however, does not appear afraid; the hunter lowers his gun and she manages to continue on her way unharmed and without returning the nickel. Finally reaching the "shining" city of Natchez, Phoenix enters the "big building"—presumably a hospital—where a nurse questions her about her grandson, asking if he has died. Phoenix remains strangely quiet at first, as if deaf to the nurse's questions. She then apologizes, claiming that her memory had suddenly failed her—that for a moment, she could not remember why she had made her long journey. The story concludes with Phoenix's heartfelt description of her grandson, whose throat was injured several years ago when he swallowed lye. She declares that he is not dead, receives the medicine for him, along with another nickel, with which she decides to buy him a Christmas present—a "little windmill."

Major Themes

Phoenix Jackson emerges in "A Worn Path" as a character who endures; she is the symbol of perseverance, stamina, and life in the face of hardship and death. Commentators have noted that her sheer fortitude in making the long journey on foot and alone points to these qualities, as does the mythological significance of her name, Phoenix—an Egyptian bird symbolizing resurrection. Christian symbolism is also apparent in the narrative. For example, the fact that the story is set during the Christmas season has led some critics to associate Phoenix's journey with that of a religious pilgrimage; her selfless concern for her grandson is interpreted as representing the true spirit of giving and self-sacrifice. While much of the story's substance rests on the imagistic and symbolic use of language, the action of the plot also shows Phoenix in direct conflict with the outside world—a society run by white people who have little respect or understanding for her situation. A man hunting in the forest assumes that she is going to town merely "to see Santa Claus," while a nurse dismisses her as a "charity" case and offers little sympathy for the plight of Phoenix's sick grandson. Because the story is completely free of authorial intrusion or explanatory commentary, the images and events that occur in the narrative remain open to a variety of reader interpretations.

Critical Reception

Critical discussion of "A Worn Path" largely has been concerned with thematic interpretation of the work, particularly the story's racial, mythological, and Christian motifs. Focusing predominantly on the story's Christian motifs, Neil D. Isaacs viewed Phoenix's Christmas journey as a "religious pilgrimage" with an ironic end that suggests "greed, corruption, cynicism." Also emphasizing Christian themes in the work, Sara Treeman pointed to story's theme of self-sacrifice, noting that the worn path "is worn because this is the symbolic journey made by all who are capable of self-sacrifice, of whom Christ is the archetype." The presence of secular mythology in the text has also been the subject of discussion by such critics as Dan Donlan, who perceived the prominence of the Egyptian myth of the Phoenix in the structure and symbolism of the story. Frank Ardolino argued for a conflation of mythological and Christian interpretations of the work, showing how "along with the Christian motifs of rebirth, the cycles of natural imagery presented create the theme of life emerging from death." The racial element of "A Worn Path" has also been a subject of critical discussion. William Jones commented in 1957 that "[t]he main reason that Miss Welty chose a Negro seems to be that only a relatively simple, uncivilized individual is worthy of representing the powerful forces which inspires such love as hers for her grandchild." John R. Cooley, in contrast, argued for a broader social reading of the story, criticizing the sentiment of the work and accusing Welty of failing to "develop her racial portraits with sufficient sensitivity or depth." Nancy K. Butterworth responded to Cooley's assessment and others with the observation that "[s]uch polemical demythologizings conflict with Welty's persistent refusal to use fiction as a platform, particularly for political or sociological issues, as well as her downplaying and even disavowal of racial implications in her stories."

Criticism

William M. Jones (review date 1957)

SOURCE: "Welty's 'A Worn Path'," in The Explicator, Vol. XV, No. 9, June, 1957, item 57.

[In the following review, Jones examines the ways in which "deeper meaning" is contained in the apparently simple language and structure of "A Worn Path. "]

Unlike many of Eudora Welty's stories, "A Worn Path" has a deceptively uncomplex organization. The major portion of the story simply recounts the journey of an old Negro woman into Natchez at Christmas time to obtain medicine for her grandson. Underneath this seemingly naive account lies a persistently annoying suggestion that there is more to the story than appears at a casual reading.

The first hint of the...

(The entire section is 815 words.)

Neil D. Isaacs (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "Life for Phoenix," in Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXI, No. 1, Winter, 1963, pp. 75-81.

[In the following essay, Isaacs examines how plot, setting, and Christian motifs contribute to multiple layers of meaning in "A Worn Path. "]

The first four sentences of "A Worn Path" contain simple declarative statements using the simple past of the verb "to be": "It was December . . . , " " . . . there was an old Negro woman . . . ," "Her name was Phoenix Jackson," "She was very old and small. . . ." The note of simplicity thus struck is the keynote of Eudora Welty's artistic design in the story. For it is a simple story (a common reaction is "simply beautiful"). But it is also...

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Saralyn R. Daly (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "'A Worn Path' Retrod," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 1, No. 2, Winter, 1964, pp. 133-39.

[In the following essay, Daly responds to interpretations of Phoenix Jackson's character offered by critics Neil D. Isaacs and William M. Jones. "Phoenix encounters not mere difficulty on her path, but evil," argues Daly.]

Neither Neil D. Isaacs nor William M. Jones in their recent articles [Isaacs, "Life for Phoenix," Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXI, Jan.-Mar. 1963; Jones, Explicator, Vol. XV, June 1957] has succeeded in completely explicating Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path." Both comment on the associations brought to mind by the first name of Phoenix Jackson...

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Alfred Appel, Jr. (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "They Endured': Eudora Welty's Negro Characters," in A Season of Dreams: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Louisiana State University Press, 1965, pp. 137-71.

[In the following excerpt, Appel argues that " 'A Worn Path ' is an effort at telescoping the history of the Negro woman. " He examines the role of folk tradition and religious faith in the story.]

"Pageant of Birds," "Ida M'Toy," and the stories, "The Burning," "Livvie," and "A Worn Path," suggest that Miss Welty has a special sympathy and respect for the Southern Negro woman and that, like writers as various as Faulkner and James Baldwin, she seems to feel that the Negro's endurance in the South has had much...

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Sara Trefman (review date 1966)

SOURCE: A review of "A Worn Path" in The Explicator, Vol. XXIV, No. 6, February, 1966, item 56.

[In the following review, Trefman argues that the protagonist's name, Phoenix, has Christian, as well as mythological, significance.]

In his discussion of Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path," (Explicator, June, 1957), William Jones identifies the central character, Old Phoenix, with the legendary bird of Egyptian folklore. Her arduous journey from her home, far out in the country, to the town of Natchez to help her ailing little grandson, is a journey of love, Jones suggests, that causes her own rejuvenation at its end. But perhaps her association with the Phoenix has even...

(The entire section is 992 words.)

Frank R. Ardolino (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Life Out of Death: Ancient Myth and Ritual in Welty's 'A Worn Path'," in Notes on Mississippi Writers, Vol. IX, No. 1, 1976, pp. 1-9.

[In the following essay, Ardolino attempts "to demonstrate that along with the Christian motifs of rebirth, the cycles of natural imagery presented create the theme of life emerging from death [in 'A Worn Path']."]

Although most critics of "A Worn Path" noting the story's careful blending of pagan myth, Christian allusion and folk story motifs have praised Eudora Welty's allusive technique of reinforcing meanings on the story's several levels of perception, they have nevertheless been divided in their assessment of its overall...

(The entire section is 2530 words.)

Roland Bartel (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Life and Death in Eudora Welty's 'A Worn Path'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 3, Summer, 1977, pp. 288-90.

[In the following essay, Bartel responds to standard critical interpretations of Phoenix Jackson's character in "A Worn Path, " noting "What concerns me about these discussions is that they treat Phoenix Jackson as a stereotype and allow the obvious archetypal significance of her name and her journey to overshadow the uniqueness of one of the most memorable women in short fiction."]

I have found Saralyn Daly's interpretation of "A Worn Path" to be basically sound [Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 1, Winter 1964], but the more I teach the...

(The entire section is 1198 words.)

John R. Cooley (essay date 1982)

"The Naturals: Eudora Welty," in Savages and Naturals: Black Portraits by White Writers in Modern American Literature, University of Delaware Press, 1982, pp. 129-37.

[In the following excerpt, Cooley examines Welty's portrayal of Phoenix Jackson and argues that "what is ultimately so disturbing about 'A Worn Path' is its very innocence and beauty. "]

"A Worn Path" has received a fair amount of critical attention, most of it presuming that Eudora Welty intended her protagonist, Aunt Phoenix Jackson, to be "a symbol of the immortality of the Negro's spirit of endurance," as Alfred Appel puts it [in A Season of Dreams: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, 1965]. The name...

(The entire section is 1362 words.)

James Walter (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Love's Habit of Vision in Welty's Phoenix Jackson," in Journal of the Short Story in English, No. 7, Autumn, 1986, pp. 77-85.

[In the following essay, Walter briefly surveys critical interpretations of "A Worn Path " and offers a reading of Phoenix Jackson's character, focussing in particular on the significance of her faith.]

Phoenix Jackson, the protagonist of Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path," is first described as coming along a path through pinewoods far out in the country near the Natchez Trace:

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 entire section is 3390 words.)

David Robinson (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "A Nickel and Dime Matter: Teaching Eudora Welty's 'A Worn Path'," in Notes on Mississippi Writers, Vol. XIX, No. 1, 1987, pp. 23-7.

[In the following essay, Robinson focuses on a particular scene in "A Worn Path" that is open to a variety of interpretations and evaluates the plausibility of each.]

Since I believe writing and reading are allied skills, I like to give essay assignments that involve careful reading. One of my most successful assignments concerns the nickel episode of Eudora Welty's story "A Worn Path," which is included in many literature textbooks. The passage is an excellent test of a student's ability to see how facts can be fitted into...

(The entire section is 1766 words.)

Nancy K. Butterworth (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "From Civil War to Civil Rights: Race Relations in Welty's 'A Worn Path'," in Eudora Welty: Eye of the Storyteller, edited by Dawn Trouard, The Kent State University Press, 1989, pp. 165-72.

[In the following essay, Butterworth argues that "recent revisionist criticism . . . frequently falsifies Welty's portrayals of black-white relations in earlier eras. " Butterworth emphasizes the ambiguity that characterizes Welty's treatment of racial themes.]

Since such seminal studies as Robert Penn Warren's "The Love and Separateness in Miss Welty" and Harry Morris's "Eudora Welty's Use of Mythology," it has become traditional to interpret Welty's characters in...

(The entire section is 3421 words.)

Elaine Orr (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: '"Unsettling Every Definition of Otherness': Another Reading of Eudora Welty's 'A Worn Path'," in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 57, No. 2, May, 1992, pp. 57-72.

[In the following essay, Orr perceives Welty's implicit examination of the writing process itself in the text of "A Worn Path," and argues that the reader is challenged "both to unlearn and to relearn, that is, to enter the process of creation. " She further notes that "the story plays upon our 'knowledge ' of 'others ' to resist the 'wornness' of old scripts."]

Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path," first published in 1941, is one of her most widely read stories. But to date, it has not received a critical...

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James Robert Saunders (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "'A Worn Path': The Eternal Quest of Welty's Phoenix Jackson," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XXV, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 62-73.

[In the following essay, Saunders surveys various critical interpretations of "A Worn Path, " emphasizing the story's ambiguous meaning and exploring its thematic affinities with other works of fiction.]

Of all the ingenious stories written by Eudora Welty over the past half century, it is perhaps "A Worn Path" that is most intriguing in terms of its ability to defy simple explanation. In a relatively early essay entitled "Life for Phoenix" [Sewanee Review, Vol. 71, 1963], Neil Isaacs manages to conclude that "the whole...

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Ruth D. Weston (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Gothic Space as Narrative Technique," in Gothic Traditions and Narrative Techniques in the Fiction of Eudora Welty, Louisiana State University Press, 1994, pp. 15-47.

[In the following excerpt, Weston examines evidence of the Gothic tradition in "A Worn Path."]

It is not nature that is the spirit of healing in "A Worn Path," but human love and endurance, in spite of a world that might seem Gothic to those less grounded in reality than is Phoenix Jackson. Although it is justly celebrated for its humorous and inspirational depiction of Phoenix's love and of her clever adaptability in the natural world, even "A Worn Path" contains images of a gothic space...

(The entire section is 564 words.)