A Worn Path, Eudora Welty
"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."
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 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."
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 deeper meaning is the old woman's name: Phoenix Jackson. The third sentence announces this name to the reader. The end of the first paragraph tells the reader that the stick she carries "made a grave and persistent noise in the still air, that seemed meditative like the chirping of a solitary little bird." The next paragraph describes her: first her great age, then her color. " . . . a golden color ran underneath, and the two knobs of her cheeks were illumined by a yellow burning under the dark." Her hair was black, but "with an odor like copper."
These seemingly coincidental references to birds, great age, and gold might be overlooked, but the reader who knows some of Welty's other work is on the lookout for significant...
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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 a story which employs many of the devices which can make of the modern short story an intricate and densely complex form. It uses them, however, in such a way that it demonstrates how a single meaning may be enriched through the use of various techniques. Thus, instead of various levels of meaning, we have here a single meaning reinforced on several levels of perception. Moreover, there is no muddying of levels and techniques; they are neatly arranged, straightforwardly presented, and simply perceived.
The plot-line follows Phoenix Jackson, who is graphically described in the second paragraph, on her long walk into Natchez where she has to get medicine for her grandson. The trek is especially difficult because of her age,...
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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 and, between them, deal with most of the suggestive details of the story—the incidents of the journey, the hunter and his dog, the woman who laced Phoenix's shoes, the two nickels, the grandson, the Christmas imagery, and the journey motif itself. Both reach somewhat the same conclusions: Jones, that the journey is a parable of the renewal of Phoenix's youth, a renewal which will be effected at the end of her journey through her great love for her grandson; Isaacs, that as Phoenix symbolizes "life itself, dying so that life [her grandson] may continue," so "life is a journey toward death, because one must die in order that life may go on."
Mr. Isaacs' interpretation is most subject to question, for he frequently overlooks...
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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 to do with the strength of the Negro woman. "A Worn Path" is an effort at telescoping the history of the Negro woman. The setting is the "worn path" of the ancient Natchez Trace, and the story presents the greatest myths in the context of a folk tradition.
Its action concerns an old Negro woman, Phoenix Jackson, who, on a cold December day, makes an arduous trip from deep within the backcountry to the town of Natchez to get medicine for her sick grandson. She has been making the trip regularly since he swallowed lye two or three years before. Phoenix is not merely any old woman, as the story proves. It is no accident that she is named "Phoenix," for Miss Welty presents her as a symbol of the immortality of the Negro's...
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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 greater significance. This is, after all, a Christmas story, and when Phoenix and her grandson are viewed as different aspects of the same entity, this single being is clearly a symbol of Christ. Phoenix herself implies that she and her grandson are creatures apart, saying inexplicably that "we is the only two left in the world." And they are further identified with each other through bird imagery: Phoenix's cane makes a sound "like the chirping of a solitary little bird," and she steals the hunter's nickel as deftly as she would have lifted "an egg from under a sitting hen"; while her grandson, on the other hand, peeps out from his little patch quilt, "holding his mouth open like a little bird." Then, too, both reflect the purity and...
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SOURCE: "'A Worn Path': Immortality of Stereotype," in English Journal, Vol. 62, No. 4, April, 1973, pp. 549-50.
[In the following essay, Donlan examines "three elements that substantiate the theme of immortality: references to death, references to time, and references to the Phoenix myth from Egyptian mythology."]
On the surface Eudora Welty's short story "A Worn Path" is an account of an old black woman's journey from Old Natchez Trace to Natchez. In fact, some readers may perceive Old Phoenix as a negative black stereotype. However, a second level of interpretation indicates a powerful statement of man's immortality. This paper will be concerned with three elements that substantiate the theme of immortality: references to death, references to time, and references to the Phoenix myth from Egyptian mythology. In this way, Old Phoenix is not a stereotype but a symbol of immortality.
Old Phoenix' journey has significance. The title of the story—"A Worn Path"—suggests the journey to be ritualistic, an idea supported by the phrase "festival figure" used to describe Old Phoenix. During her journey Old Phoenix is surrounded by death. The season is winter. The earth is frozen. The woods are still, and the dove mourns. She encounters "big dead trees," a hunter carrying dead birds, dead weeds. She even dances with a scarecrow. Though she is "in death," Old Phoenix does not die. In fact, she...
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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 mood and theme. While some emphasize the patterns of Christian rebirth, others insist upon the darker existential meanings of carrying out the journey of life in a wasteland, with no hope of regeneration. In this paper I will attempt to demonstrate that along with the Christian motifs of rebirth the cycles of natural imagery presented create the theme of life emerging from death. Phoenix, who effects the rebirth of herself, her grandson and the earth through her perennial healing journey, represents the Kore figure—divine mother and child—who descends to Hades to recover her lost daughter and rises to earth where they are reborn. In sum, Phoenix's journey with its succession of deaths and resurrections parallels the pagan nature rituals...
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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 story the more I become convinced that an additional comment is needed to bring out the richness of the central character, Phoenix Jackson.
As most critics have noted, Phoenix Jackson's first name links her to the Egyptian myth of the bird that renews itself periodically from its own ashes. Equally obvious is the quest motif associated with her annual journey to Natchez. 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.
Phoenix Jackson is a very old woman who walks from the Old Natchez Trace into Natchez at...
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"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 Aunt Phoenix and the events of the story appear to parallel the legend of the Phoenix, thereby suggesting new life for the aged black woman. Neil Isaacs has suggested [in "Life for Phoenix," Sewanee Review, Vol. 71, 1963] that Phoenix's ailing grandson, to whom she brings medicine and a Christmas gift, may be seen as the infant Christ. His sickness will be healed through Phoenix's love and the medicine she brings from the city. One would think that death, rebirth, and perpetuation are central concerns in "A Worn Path." However, Welty may well have intended the title ironically, for the story she tells is filled with hints that neither Phoenix nor her grandson will long survive—that "A Worn Path" is not essentially about...
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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 balanced heaviness and lightness of a pendulum in a grandfather clock. She carried a thin, small cane made from an umbrella, and with this she kept tapping the frozen earth in front of her.
As if her name were not signal enough of her association with time, the evocation of the grandfather clock implies not only the venerableness of time as Phoenix lives it, but also its repetitive, inflexible quality. Her progression is strictly proportioned to an objective order of time to which she responds with a curious mechanical tapping that only heightens the impression of time's domineering over her actions. If the "heaviness" of the clock's descending pendulum suggests the submission of her personal time to a...
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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 different interpretive patterns, though some of the patterns accommodate more of the facts than others do.
The central character, Phoenix Jackson, is an old black woman on her way to Natchez at Christmas time. We know that she is poor, feeble, and nearsighted; nonetheless she is willing to face a number of obstacles—animals, a barbed-wire fence, a narrow log traversing a stream—for her mission, which is not revealed until the end of the story. The title, as well as clues throughout, suggests that her action has taken place many times before, and we finally learn that Phoenix regularly takes the "worn path" to bring back medicine for her grandson, who has swallowed lye and is evidently bedridden. The nurse who gives her the...
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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 terms of mythological and cultural archetypes. Welty's black characters frequently have evoked such parallels. In addition to the obvious reference to the Egyptian resurrection myth implied by her name, Phoenix Jackson in "A Worn Path" has been compared to the pagan fertility figures Kore, Demeter, and Persephone, Osiris, Attis, and Adonis, as well as Theseus and Aeneas; knight questers such as the Red Cross Knight and Don Quixote; Bunyan's Christian, a Magus, and Christ. Little Lee Roy in "Keela, The Outcast Indian Maiden" has been likened to the archetypal scapegoat Le Roi Mehaigné, the maimed Fisher King, the albatross in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and American Negro folk tricksters such as Brer Rabbit. Powerhouse, more...
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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 reading that questions the interpretation of Phoenix Jackson offered by the white attendant at the end of the story. Phoenix is "a charity case." Given the story's "thick" rendering of Phoenix and the textual evidence that the attendant is an unreliable interpreter, this absence of different readings is puzzling. We should not fail to notice that Welty's verbose and inventive protagonist is herself immediately silenced when she is so summed up by her "superior." Why?
Through careful attention to the narrative itself—an attention that leads us to deconstruct the authoritative and delimiting perspectives offered by the white characters and to reconstruct an excessive subjectivity emerging among Phoenix, the narrator's voice, and...
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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 story is suggestive of a religious pilgrimage, while the conclusion implies that the return trip will be like the journey of the Magi, with Phoenix following a star (the marvelous windmill) to bring a gift to the child (medicine, also windmill)." Indeed the tale is in some sense, to use Isaacs' word, "suggestive" of a religious quest. The story begins conspicuously on a cold December morning, and just as quickly we are made aware that there is an old black woman "coming along a path through the pinewoods." We observe her as she negotiates a series of obstacles in that wilderness on her way to Natchez, Mississippi, presumably to pick up some medicine for her grandson who, according to the nurse's calculation near the story's end, had...
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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 and situation. The old woman with the exotic name walks through a winter wasteland from the Natchez Trace, up the hill through "dark pine shadows" and then down under live oaks, where "it was as dark as a cave," to the town of Natchez. Not only gothic entrapment but also the historical reality of slavery in the South is suggested by Phoenix's own image for her weariness—"Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far"—and by the thorny bush and barbed-wire fence that entangle her along the way. The "ghost" in this story is only a scarecrow; but she is menaced as well by a real black dog and by "big dead trees like black men with one arm," and a row of weathered houses appears in gothic array like "old women under a spell...
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Champion, Laurie, ed. The Critical Response to Eudora Welty's Fiction. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994, 368 p.
Reprints in one volume the most significant critical essays on Welty's short fiction.
Dazey, Mary Ann. "Phoenix Jackson and the Nice Lady: A Note on Eudora Welly's 'A Worn Path'." American Notes & Queries XVII, No. 6 (February 1979): 92-3.
Examines the thematic significance of a specific episode in which Phoenix Jackson asks "a nice lady" to tie her boot laces.
Keys, Marilynn. "'A Worn Path': The Way of Dispossession." Studies in Short Fiction 16, No. 4 (Fall 1979): 354-56.
Concentrates "on only the major elements of the story: the reason for the journey, the obstacles which the protagonist encounters and overcomes, and the ultimate triumph of love over adversity."
Lewis, Thomas N. "Textual Variants in 'A Worn Path'." Eudora Welty Newsletter XVI, No. 1 (Winter 1992): 11-13.
Provides an analysis of textual variants that were "introduced into 'A Worn Path' between its publication in The Atlantic Monthly in February 1940 and its appearance in A Curtain of Green in November 1941."
Nostrandt, Jeanne R. "Welty's 'A Worn Path'." The Explicator 34, No. 5 (January 1979): 33.
Perceives "traces of an old Norse tale" in "A Worn Path."...
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