Through Phoenix Jackson, Eudora Welty develops themes relating to the human condition that also permeate the works of William Faulkner and John Steinbeck, both Nobel Prize winners. Like Welty, Faulkner and Steinbeck understood the human spirit and the nobility of which human beings are capable; they also understood that the quality of a person’s character is not determined by or related to wealth or power and that society often scorns those who should be cherished. Faulkner and Steinbeck would have understood Phoenix Jackson, and they would have loved her, for the frail old woman illustrates the best of humanity.
The contrast between Phoenix Jackson’s place in society and her value as a human being could not have been drawn more sharply—or more deliberately—by Welty. In Mississippi in the 1930s, Phoenix occupies the lowest rung on the social ladder and is afforded the least respect in society: She is African American; she is a woman; she is uneducated; she is poor; and she is elderly. Consequently, Phoenix is dependent on others and subjected to their racism, condescension, and cruelty, as well as to their occasional acts of hypocritical charity. Called “Grandma” by strangers, she is denied the dignity of her own name.
Despite her circumstances, however, Phoenix endures, just as she had endured being born into slavery and had lived long enough to witness its demise. Her body is frail, she is almost blind, and her mind is not entirely sound, but her spirit remains unbroken. Drawing on the deep well of love and compassion she feels for her grandson, Phoenix faces the world with courage and resolve, risking her life each time she makes the long journey into Natchez to get the medicine that will ease his suffering.
For love of her grandson, no sacrifice is too great for Phoenix. Putting aside her pride, she stands mute before the office attendant who insults her and endures humiliation. She risks offending God by stealing a nickel from the hunter, and she asks the office attendant for five pennies. By stealing and begging, she can buy her grandson a toy; imagining his joy fills her with happiness. There is no bitterness in Phoenix, only an irrepressible spirit guided by love.
In accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950, William Faulkner declared that the writer’s duty is to write about the “compassion and sacrifice and endurance” of which the human spirit is capable and to remind man of “the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.” When John Steinbeck accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962, he recalled Faulkner’s remarks and affirmed them, saying that “the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit.” In “A Worn Path,” Eudora Welty fulfills the writer’s responsibility as Faulkner and Steinbeck defined it, and they would have felt great respect and affection for Phoenix Jackson.