What are the first three obstacles Phoenix Jackson encounters in "A Worn Path"?

The first three tangible obstacles Phoenix Jackson encounters in "A Worn Path" are thorns, a log which crosses a creek, and a barbed-wire fence. Her age and economic status are more indirect obstacles that also make this journey difficult for Phoenix.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

On her long, arduous journey in “A Worn Path,” Phoenix Jackson initially confronts three natural obstacles that are part of the story’s physical landscape. These three objects—a hill, a thorn bush, and a creek to cross by traversing a log—also reflect the landscape of her life; they represent obstacles constructed by white society for an elderly Black woman during the Great Depression in the South.

The first obstacle that Phoenix Jackson encounters as she trudges along a path is a hill.

The path ran up a hill. "Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far," she said, in the voice of argument old people keep to use with themselves. "Something always take a hold of me on this hill—pleads I should stay."

Her physical climb mirrors the uphill battles she has fought throughout her life and still faces today. For example, she never had a chance to obtain an education. By the time the Civil War ended with the “Surrender” at Appomattox, she was too old to attend school. Before the Civil War, she probably was a slave (or at least a descendant of one) with “chains about my feet” and a possession of someone who “always take a hold of me.” Her observation that something “pleads I should stay” describes the resistance of Southern confederates to the abolition of the institution of slavery. In the present day, Phoenix endures but does not fold under age, poverty, condescension by others, and her obligation to care for her severely injured grandson.

The second obstacle is a thorn bush she brushes after surmounting the hill.

But before she got to the bottom of the hill a bush caught her dress.


Her fingers were busy and intent, but her skirts were full and long, so that before she could pull them free in one place they were caught in another. It was not possible to allow the dress to tear. 'I in the thorny bush,' she said. 'Thorns, you doing your appointed work. Never want to let folks pass—no, sir. Old eyes thought you was a pretty little green bush.'

When she finally frees herself, she declares, "Sun so high!" and laments the wasted time spent on freeing herself.

This passage reflects the never-ending entrapment of slavery and systematic racism. Despite working furiously, she cannot liberate herself or completely resolve her situation. When she extricates herself from one area, her skirt is caught in another place. This Sisyphean task is made even more stressful because of her poverty: she cannot “allow the dress to tear” because this “dark and striped” dress may be her only nice dress. The thorn bush imagery and declaration “Sun so high” recall Jesus’s crown of thorns, a painful burden before his crucifixion and rise from the dead. The bush is doing its “appointed work. Never want to let folks pass,” which recalls how Christian slaveowners used religion to justify slavery. Her statement “Old eyes thought you was a pretty little green bush” foreshadows the ageism she encounters from a hunter and healthcare workers later in the story.

The third obstacle Phoenix meets is a “a log was laid across the creek.” She cannot cross the water without balancing on the log to use it as a precarious bridge.

"Now comes the trial," said Phoenix. Putting her right foot out, she mounted the log and shut her eyes. Lifting her skirt, leveling her cane fiercely before her like a festival figure in some parade, she began to march across. Then she opened her eyes and she was safe on the other side.

"I wasn't as old as I thought," she said.

The creek represents the divide between antebellum and post-Civil War South. In order to navigate that social transition, Phoenix must endure racial narrow-minded prejudice just as she walks on the narrow log. Determined (“fierce”) and persistent despite fear, she succeeds in passing through this “trial” in spite of her “old” age.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on February 3, 2021
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Phoenix Jackson has to overcome a number of hurdles on her way to collect medicine for her son. One of these hurdles is a quail hunter who, despite rendering assistance to Phoenix, also appears quite threatening.

But most of the obstacles that Phoenix encounters are natural, and that makes them easier to surmount. Phoenix has made this journey many times before, and so knows her way around. She also has something of a kinship with the natural world, including the quails that the hunter she meets has been trying to shoot.

The first natural object that Phoenix encounters is a thorn bush, in which she catches her dress. Thankfully, she's able to free herself from the bush without tearing her dress, which is very important to her.

No sooner has Phoenix dealt with one object than she has to deal with another; this time, it's a log lying across the creek. It's another tricky situation for Phoenix, but once again she manages to get over the obstacle with considerable aplomb. After closing her eyes, Phoenix lifts up her skirt and marches across to the other side, safe and sound.

Finally, Phoenix has to go through a barbed-wire fence. She does this by creeping and crawling, spreading her knees and stretching her fingers “like a baby trying to climb the steps.” At long last, Phoenix is safe and is able to rise up out into the clearing.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on February 5, 2021
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In this story, Phoenix Jackson sets out on a long and difficult journey in order to obtain needed medicine for her grandson, whose throat swells up and closes after drinking lye. This is not the first time that she has made this journey; her grandson's health periodically becomes worse, which prompts Phoenix to travel to doctors to obtain this medicine for him.

The first obstacle that snares Phoenix is a "thorny bush." Since her skirts are long and flowing, Phoenix is recaptured by these thorns each time she pulls herself free from them. She tells the bushes that they are doing their appointed work, trying to prevent people like her from passing through.

Phoenix finally makes it through the thorns and must face her second obstacle: crossing a log which lies across the creek. Since Phoenix is an old woman, maintaining her balance as she walks across the log is more difficult than it might have been for a young person. Nevertheless, she hoists up her skirt and uses her cane as a balancing device as she crosses "like a festival figure in some parade."

Phoenix stops momentarily to rest before facing her third obstacle: getting through a barbed-wire fence. Crawling on her knees, Phoenix worries that she will tear her dress or have "her arm or her leg sawed off if she g[ets] caught fast where she [is]."

These are not the only obstacles Phoenix faces on her journey; she must also face a dog and a white man who ridicules her. Phoenix's age and agility are obstacles she must face, as is the heat of the day and the fact that she relies on acts of charity in order to obtain the medicine. Nevertheless, Phoenix perseveres in her quest as a testament of her dedication to her grandson.

Last Reviewed by eNotes Editorial on February 5, 2021
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Phoenix Jackson is shown to have to battle through a variety of difficulties to get to her goal and receive the medicine that her grandson needs. Firstly, it is shown that nature itself becomes an obstacle, as she has to descend a hill and gets her dress caught on some thorns. Then she has to cross a log that is lying across a creek, and then finally she needs to crawl through a barbed-wire fence. Through all of these first three obstacles that she has to face, it is clear that she is tired and hungry, and this makes her determination to endure all of these hardships all the more remarkable. Note the way in which she addresses the thorns that have caught in her dress and which she has to struggle to free herself from:

"Thorns, you doing your appointed work. Never want to let folks pass, no sir. Old eyes thought you was a pretty little green bush."

Symbolically, we could argue that the thorn bushes and the other obstacles that Phoenix Jackson faces so early on in her journey could represent the unexpected obstacles that one must overcome on the path of life. Phoenix Jackson, through her determination and stubborness, keeps on the path, moving onwards and overcoming every obstacle that she faces with gritty stoicism.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial