Eudora Welty’s story “A Worn Path” introduces one of the great characters in literature---Phoenix Jackson. Phoenix lives near Natchez, Mississippi, in the middle of the twentieth century. Life in the south still found prejudice rampant toward the black people.
Phoenix has been traveling the worn path with a distinct purpose. Her grandson swallowed lye about three years ago burning his throat almost killing him. Now, his grandmother has to go to Natchez to pick up the medicine that he needs to survive. This is her purpose in life---to make her grandson’s life as happy as possible.
Physically, the author’s description creates a picture of a small, old black woman walking along with an umbrella that she uses as a cane and a weapon if needed.
She looked straight ahead. Her eyes were blue with age. Her skin had a pattern all its own of numberless branching wrinkles…middle of her forehead, but a golden color ran underneath, and the two knobs of her cheeks were illumined by a yellow burning under the dark. Under the red rag her hair came down on her neck in the frailest of ringlets, still black, and with an odor like copper.
Welty chose the name of Phoenix for this wonderful character to allude to the Egyptian mythological bird that was said to be colored with brilliant scarlet and gold plumage [which are the colors that the author relates to the protagonist]. It lived a long life and then was consumed in flames. It rose out of its ashes to live again.
Phoenix travels this path filled with thorns, bushes, creeks, wild animals, and rocks. Her constant banter, although humorous, portrays the difficulty of the long trek for the elderly woman who will not give up until she gets the medicine and returns to her grandson.
On this trip, Phoenix winds up in a ditch from which she cannot seem to extricate herself. A hunter happens up and helps her out. He immediately displays his prejudice by talking down to the elderly woman calling her granny, telling her to go home, and implying that she is going to town to see Santa Claus. Phoenix cleverly gets the best of him when he drops a nickel which she picks up without him knowing it.
When she arrives at the doctor’s office, Phoenix again faces bias from the receptionist. After her trip, Phoenix has to sit down. Throughout her journey, there are hints that the old lady has some kind of dementia. At other times, her view is clear. When she remembers why she is there at the doctor’s office, the nurse brings her the much needed medicine. The receptionist gives her a nickel in the spirit of Christmas.
The dime that Phoenix has delights her. She will purchase a present for her grandson. Then she will return to the worn path and travel until she reaches the arms and love of her child