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Eudora Welty placed, as all good writers did, a great deal of emphasis on establishing the setting in which a story would occur. Such was certainly the case with her short story "A Worn Path." It is a tale about an elderly indigent woman, Phoenix Jackson, “an old Negro woman,” making the long trek to a medical clinic to get medicine for her grandson who is seriously ill from having ingested lye – a detail not divulged until late in the story. Right from the start, Welty injected suspense into her tale by placing her elderly, frail protagonist in that most malevolent of settings, the woods: “She was very old and small and she walked slowly in the dark pine shadows . . .” That phrase, “the dark pine shadows,” is deliberately employed to evoke a sense of dread. Throughout the following narrative, the author continues to provide hints of dangers to come, as, for instance, when she writes that “every time she [Phoenix] took a step she might have fallen over her shoelaces, which dragged from her unlaced shoes.” So, we have an elderly, frail African American woman navigating the woods at night in the racist American South. Darkness is in and of itself a threatening feature. Add wild animals – “Keep the big wild hogs out of my path,” Phoenix says to herself as she sets out on her journey, wild hogs being infamously violent – and the constant fear of tripping in the dark and breaking bones, and Welty has succeeded in establishing a foreboding environment. Phoenix encounters a hunter, a white man with a gun and a large dog, the very definition of threatening in the Deep South when the vulnerable character is black. Welty builds suspense until her protagonist reaches her destination, only to have Phoenix confronted by the most pernicious threat yet, a condescending medical clinic administrator who gazes at the old black woman and says, "A charity case, I suppose."
Welty has taken her protagonist, and the reader, on a frightening journey through the woods at night only to have Phoenix insulted on her mission of mercy. The author’s motive in presenting Phoenix Jackson’s story as she did was probably to emphasize the irony in the old woman’s situation. When questioned by a nurse, Phoenix experiences a mental lapse, forgetting the purpose of her long walk through the woods, further adding to the sense of irony while providing the story, and its main character, an added element of pathos. We don’t know how many more such journeys Phoenix has in her, but she will most assuredly make the trek at least one more time.
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