Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Winner of an O. Henry Memorial Contest short story award, “A Worn Path” though an early story, is as accomplished as any of Welty’s later fiction. This story exemplifies Welty’s special power of placing the reader inside convincing and interesting characters without reducing the essential mystery of human character. This power makes her characters seem complete and real. In her essay on “A Worn Path,” Welty reveals that the story originated in her vision of a solitary old woman: I saw her, at a middle distance, in a winter country landscape, and watched her slowly make her way across my line of vision. The sight of her made me write the story. I invented an errand for her, but that only seemed a living part of the figure she was herself: what errand other than for someone else could be making her go?
Welty also emphasizes that, though it is possible that the grandson is dead, the really important feature of the story is Phoenix’s belief that he is alive and that “he going to last.” This incentive for Phoenix’s quest is central; the possible ambiguity of the grandson’s condition is peripheral. Welty’s expressed purpose in this story is to focus on Phoenix’s habitual goodness.
Crucial to the story’s success is Welty’s choice of narrative point of view. By confining the reader to Phoenix’s perceptions, Welty avoids the danger of sentimentality that she would have risked in a more external presentation of a good...
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War and Poverty
Welty's "A Worn Path" was published in 1941, the same year the United States entered World War II, Europe had already been involved in the conflict for several years since Adolph Hitler began enlarging Germany's empire. Germany declared war on the United States in December, after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the U.S.'s declaration of war against Japan. Set against the brewing global conflict, Welty's tale of rural life in the South may seem out of context for the times. Phoenix Jackson's world is much smaller than the global world of international warfare. Her world revolves around her home, her grandson, and the rural life of Natchez, Mississippi.
The story was inspired in part by the work Welty was doing in the early 1940s for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was established by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1934 as a way to put many unemployed people to work building necessary infrastructure—bridges, dams, power plants—to make the country a modern and efficient world power. Welty was a photographer for the WPA, which also included many arts programs, and as she observed an elderly black woman laboriously crossing a field, the idea for "A Worn Path'' emerged. Poverty during these years was a reality for many, particularly for blacks and particularly for rural Southerners. Phoenix Jackson was both of these. Quite possibly, Phoenix was old enough to have been born into slavery, or at the very...
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Point of View
"A Worn Path" is told from a third-person limited point of view. This allows the reader to empathize with Phoenix, because her thoughts and actions are shown. Yet, in third-person, the reader is allowed to view Phoenix from a distance, and thereby see her as others see her.
The most obvious symbol in the story is Phoenix Jackson's comparison to the mythological bird, the phoenix. Dressed in vivid colors, Phoenix's resilience is underscored by her comparison with a bird that rises from the ashes every 500 years. Additionally, Phoenix's grandson is described by the woman as "[wearing] a little patch quilt and peep out holding his mouth open like a little bird."
Welty has been praised from early on for her use of language. In using similes, she makes vivid comparisons that help the reader form a mind's eye picture of the action. Similes are direct comparisons that use words such as "like" or "as" to link the two ideas. One such simile in this story occurs in the description of Phoenix Jackson's face: "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. "The narrator describes her cane as being "limber as a buggy whip." As Phoenix walks across the log, she looks "like a festival figure in some parade." She encounters big dead trees "like black men with one arm." Other similes in the story...
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Compare and Contrast
1941: Native Son, a stage adaptation of James Baldwin's novel, opens at the St. James Theater in New York City.
1997: Tiger Woods becomes the youngest person to win golf's Master's Tournament, as well as the first person of color to do so.
1941: African-American doctor Charles Richard Drew opens the first blood bank in New York.
Segregation laws prevent him from donating his own blood.
1997: The White House issues an official policy to the survivors and families of the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment which began in the 1940s. Hundreds of infected black men were denied treatment in order to study the effects of the disease over time.
1941: Negro Digest begins publishing in Chicago with an initial circulation of 3,000.
1997: African-American filmmaker Spike Lee forms an advertising company to make television commercials geared towards black and urban consumers.
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Topics for Further Study
Research the history of the Natchez Trace in Mississippi and the surrounding area. How has the trail been important to various groups throughout history, and why is this an appropriate setting for Welty's story of Phoenix Jackson?
Find out about race relations in the United States, especially in Mississippi, during the early 1940s. Are these the same attitudes Welty depicts in "A Worn Path"?
The journey has been a literary device since ancient Greek times when Homer wrote The Odyssey, How is Phoenix Jackson's walk through the woods similar to Odysseus's seven-year journey home after the Trojan War?
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"A Worn Path" was adapted into a into a 20-minute film produced by Worn Path Productions and distributed by Pyramid Film and Video. The film includes a ten-minute interview with Eudora Welty, conducted by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Beth Henley.
"Eudora Welty Reads 'Why I Live at the P.O.' and "A Worn Path''' was produced by Caedmon Audio Cassettes in 1992.
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What Do I Read Next?
"Why I Live at the P.O.,'' a critically acclaimed story by Welty, in which a young woman's difficult relationship with her parents is exposed with humor.
Carson McCullers also writes of the Southern experience although from a different point of view. Her novels The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Reflections in a Golden Eye were written in the same era as Welty's first stories.
"A Rose for Emily," a short story by fellow Southerner William Faulkner is also about an older single woman.
Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved examines the aftermath of slavery in rural Ohio in the late nineteenth-century.
The Optimist's Daughter, Welty's semi-autobiographical novel about the strained ties between a parent and child won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Glenn, Eunice. "Fantasy in the Fiction of Eudora Welty,'' in Critiques and Essays on Modern Fiction: Representing the Achievement of Modern America and British Critics, 1920-1951, edited by John W Aldridge, The Ronald Press Company, 1952, pp 506-17.
Warren, Robert Penn. "The Love and the Separateness of Miss Welty," in Kenyon Review, Volume 6, 1944, pp 246-259.
Welty, Eudora The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews, Vintage Books/Random House, 1979.
Butterworth, Nancy K. "From Civil War to Civil Rights: Race Relations in 'A Worn Path,'" in Eudora Welty: Eye of the Storyteller, edited by Dawn Trouard, Kent State University Press, 1989.
Butterworth discusses the racial politics of the story.
Conversations with Eudora Welty, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, University Press of Mississippi, 1984.
Collected here are many interviews and personal conversations various people have had with Eudora Welty. A valuable resource for those interested in the author herself, her work, her life, and her concerns.
Eudora Welty, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.
This collection of thirteen essays about Eudora Welty's fiction provides an excellent introduction to her work. These essays are written by some very well-known critics and writers, such as Katherme Anne Porter, Joyce Carol Oates,...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Champion, Laurie. The Critical Response to Eudora Welty’s Fiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Gygax, Franziska. Serious Daring from Within: Female Narrative Strategies in Eudora Welty’s Novels. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Gretlund, Jan Nordby. Eudora Welty’s Aesthetics of Place. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994.
Gretlund, Jan Nordby, and Karl-Heinz Westarp, eds. The Late Novels of Eudora Welty. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.
Johnston, Carol Ann. Eudora Welty: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1997.
Kreyling, Michael. Understanding Eudora Welty. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
McHaney, Pearl Amelia, ed. Eudora Welty: Writers’ Reflections upon First Reading Welty. Athens, Ga.: Hill Street Press, 1999.
Montgomery, Marion. Eudora Welty and Walker Percy: The Concept of Home in Their Lives and Literature. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2004.
Waldron, Ann. Eudora: A Writer’s Life. New York: Doubleday, 1998.
Weston, Ruth D. Gothic Traditions and Narrative Techniques in the Fiction of Eudora Welty. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State...
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