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The story is set in the rural South during the time period. Phoenix Jackson lives in the country, "away back off the Old Natchez Trace," which was an early road that ran from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee. Life in this rural environment was isolating, especially for the poor; Phoenix walked quite a distance through an empty, rugged countryside before finally reaching the dirt road leading into town. Being poor, she had no private transportation, and there was no public transportation to serve her. She meets only one other person along the way, the hunter.
Since Phoenix is the central character in the story, conditions in the South at this time are shown primarily in how they impacted her. Being poor, she can avail herself of some minimal free medical assistance for her grandson, but she is treated as a "charity case," which hurts her pride. She also endures the racism of her society, evident in how she is treated by the hunter and by one of the attendants in the county office.
Welty's story is remarkable in that it is told in third person but is focused entirely on Old Phoenix's experience walking into town to get medicine for her grandson. The story is rich in detail about the old South:
- Old Phoenix's walk into town through the pines and oaks is like a journey out of the past, and she herself is like a figure from some forgotten time. This quality is reinforced by her constant talking to herself and to the plants and animals around her, which lends a certain folkloric quality to her walk.
- Her encounter with the young white hunter reveals much about race relations. The hunter is condescending to Phoenix, advising her not to walk to town, then, when she insists, laughing it off, saying that "old colored people" like herself would do anything to get into town to "see Santa Claus." Even though the hunter tries to infantilize Phoenix, she tricks him into chasing away a dog so that she can pick up a nickel he has accidentally dropped.
- Once Phoenix gets to town, she stops a well-to-do woman laden with presents and asks her to lace her shoes. The woman puts down her packages and does it. This is a little surprising. Phoenix says she "doesn't mind" asking a "nice lady" to tie her shoes when she gets to town. Phoenix's great age clearly entitles her to this treatment.
- Her mission in town is to get medicine for her grandson, who has swallowed lye. When she gets to the clinic, however, she does not interact with anyone there and simply stands silently until she is recognized by someone who knows why she has come. She is given another nickel.
- Phoenix's errand and her decision to use the ten cents she has accumulated on her trip to buy a present for her grandson suggest a fierce commitment to his wellbeing against all odds.
Even though Phoenix is very poor and uneducated (she was too old to go to school "at the time of the Surrender," or the end of the Civil War), Welty's story shows how Phoenix nevertheless is able to cope with poverty and racism. In fact, her "worn path" is a path of steady, quiet defiance.
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