How do the characters' voices in Eudora Welty's short story "A Worn Path" relate to the overall theme of the story?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Eudora Welty's short story "A Worn Path" is set soon after the Civil War during the days of segregation in the South under the Jim Crow laws that were enacted in 1890 and lasted all the way until the mid 1960s. The story describes an elderly African-American woman named Phoenix Jackson making a long journey on foot in the frozen December morning to a medical clinic in Natchez, Mississippi. She has made the trip twice a year for the past several years, ever since her grandson was poisoned by consuming lye and never received proper medical treatment. The best Old Phoenix can do is acquire medicine twice a year to sooth his suffering. The short story certainly covers many themes, including the determination that love ignites within us and the cruelty of racism. Plus, the two themes go hand in hand because Old Phoenix must, through her determination, overcome the cruel barriers put in her path due to racism in order to take care of her grandson. Author Welty uses her characters' voices to develop both characterization and her themes.

The first moment the reader hears Old Phoenix speak in the story is the first moment the reader hears her inner strength of character and her determination, particularly her determination to complete her journey, all for the sake of the grandson she loves. The narrator describes that, as Old Phoenix hobbled along with her umbrella used as a cane, she sometimes heard "quivering in the thicket." Old Phoenix responds to these noises with commands that show she won't allow herself to be either frightened or interfered with:

Out of my way, all you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons and wild animals! ... Keep out from under these feet, little bob-whites ... Keep the big wild hogs out of my path. Don't let none of those come running my direction. I got a long way.

Her refusal to be either frightened or interfered with shows just how determined she is to ease her grandson's suffering, which helps serve to develop Welty's theme concerning the determination that love ignites within us. The reader can even more clearly hear Old Phoenix's determination when we focus on how author Welty has juxtaposed Old Phoenix's frail, diminutive stature against these fearless, determined commands directed at something she really has no control over--mother nature.

The theme concerning the cruelty of racism is developed through the voice of the white, unnamed hunter. At first glance, the reader may think he is congenial because he helps her out of the ditch she has fallen into and seems to express concern when he asks where she lives. He says to her, "Why, that's too far! [...] Now you go on home, Granny!" However, by the time he points the gun at her face, the reader sees clearly that he told her to go home simply because he doesn't feel she should be in the presence of the world due to her race. In addition, he lies to her, saying he would give her a dime if he had one, and we know he is lying because she has just stolen the nickel that has fallen out of his pocket. Hence, the combination of gun pointing and lying helps the reader hear the sneer and contempt in his voice, since the reader also knows that he is faking any concern he is showing for Old Phoenix. Plus, the contempt Welty paints in the hunter's voice helps develop her theme concerning the cruelty of racism, a theme that further shows us just how many barriers Old Phoenix must use her determination to overcome.