What is the atmosphere in "A Worn Path," and would it change if the setting were different?

The story is a series of events that Phoenix goes through during a journey. It is a journey that she has taken many times before and so she knows her routines. She knows how to get there, what to do when she is lost and where to go when she gets there. The journey is not only symbolic but also realistic in the way it captures the mind of an old woman who has taken this same path since she was a child. The setting serves as an underlying tone to the story, which doesn't change much throughout the short story.

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At first, it's tempting to say that the atmosphere in the story is ominous: Phoenix Jackson is making her long, lonesome way through the countryside, and she's quite old; her eyes are failing her and every step must be carefully measured in order for her to stay safe. Indeed, it's...

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At first, it's tempting to say that the atmosphere in the story is ominous: Phoenix Jackson is making her long, lonesome way through the countryside, and she's quite old; her eyes are failing her and every step must be carefully measured in order for her to stay safe. Indeed, it's a pretty precarious position: her shoes are unlaced, and it seems like the entire landscape is trying to catch her, and hold her:

Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far . . . Something always take a hold of me on this hill—pleads I should stay[,]

she says to herself at one point. Once over the hill, she gets caught in a thorn bush, and the hot sun beats down on her. She has to clamber over a barbed-wire fence, and through the "maze" of "dead corn," after the "dead trees, like black men with one arm."

All of these images seem likely to create a suspenseful atmosphere, and indeed, there is a kernel of suspense in the story, particularly when the man who helps Phoenix out of the ditch points his gun at her. And yet Phoenix takes this sick joke in stride, just like she takes everything else in stride.

And so it's safe to say that the atmosphere, while partially suspenseful, is overall very assured and deliberate. It, like Phoenix, is calm and calculating; it is familiar. Despite coming up against so many obstacles on her way to town, Phoenix is always in control of the situation, keeps her cool, and rises to every challenge. And not once does the reader doubt her abilities—Welty gives us no reason to question Phoenix's competence.

But all this is true only because Phoenix knows herself and knows her path. She is very, very old and has been making the trip into town her entire life. Welty says that she

would have been lost if she had not distrusted her eyesight and depended on her feet to know where to take her . . . .

Every step of the way is ingrained in her muscle memory and her locative memory. If she had been placed in an area she was unfamiliar with, her feet would not have known the way, and she would have likely become lost, perhaps frightened, perhaps beyond saving in her frail condition. So if the setting had been any different, that suspense that keeps trying to snatch at the reader like the thorns that snatch at Phoenix would catch, and the atmosphere likely would turn ominous. But as Welty wrote it, this is not quite the case.

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The mood—or emotional atmosphere of the text—is somewhat menacing, as though we are watching a relatively defenseless and innocent creature go off alone into the dark forest full of dangers. Although Phoenix is emotionally strong and incredibly resilient, she does encounter real dangers: the log across the stream, the big and loud dog, the terrible hunter who actually points his gun at her. To make matters worse, Phoenix is nearly blind, very old, and somewhat frail; if her path were not quite "worn"—she's made this trek many, many times it seems—it seems unlikely that she could find her way. The fact that Phoenix is a black woman and the story takes place in the American South in either the late 19th or early 20th century makes the menace that much more real. Racism and prejudice and violence against black people was not uncommon in this time and place, and so she does not only have to deal with physical dangers but psychological and emotional ones as well.

Therefore, the mood would change, I think, if this setting were different. If most people in the twenty-first century saw a frail old woman—of whatever race—confused or in danger, they would endeavor to help her; Phoenix would likely encounter fewer obstacles on her journey, which would lessen the tense and menacing mood.

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