“A Worn Path” by Eudora Welty was written and published in the middle of the twentieth century. The setting of the story is Natchez, Mississippi, and the surrounding area where the main character lives. At this time, the south has really not changed its attitude toward the black people who are treated as less the human and meant to serve the white man. The epithets of “boy,” “granny,” and “nigger” were still part of the white man’s vernacular for the black people.
Like the mythological bird for which she was named, Phoenix Jackson rises to the occasion despite her ancient age [she actually does not know how old she is] and failing mental and physical health. Determined, dignified, and noble—these are the adjectives which describe this beautiful, raggedy old woman who has one purpose in life: to make her grandson’s life the best that it can be.
The reader does not know how often Phoenix has to follow the worn path to town. Whenever her grandson needs medicine, she makes the dangerous trek to Natchez to fill his prescription so that he can breathe better.
The path is hazardous particularly for someone who can barely see and sometimes forgets what she is doing. When she is lucid, Phoenix has common sense and a great wit. This is apparent when she outwits the hunter and takes his nickel. The hunter treats her with a typical attitude that Phoenix has little intelligence and is childish in her behavior.
Any confidence that Phoenix has in her abilities is hindered because of the extreme fatigue that she feels after her long walk. As she arrives at the doctor’s office, Phoenix is obviously relieved. Her movements have been laborious.
“Here I be,” she said. There was a fixed and ceremonial stiffness over her body.
“A charity case, I suppose,” said an attendant who sat at the desk before her.
But Phoenix only looked ahead. There was sweat on her face, the wrinkles in her skin shone like a bright net.
“Speak up, Grandma,” the woman said. “What’s your name? Have you been here before?”
The attendant becomes annoyed by Phoenix's lack of response. She treats the elderly lady as though she is stupid. The nurse comes in and says that this was just old Aunt Phoenix. The nurse explains Phoenix’s purpose.
Phoenix is lost in her thoughts and does not remember why she has come. Staring ahead and looking blank, her face has become rigid. The nurse continues to try to get Phoenix to respond. Finally, the nurse tells Phoenix that she is wasting their time. She also asks if Phoenix’s grandson is dead. That question brings a response. Phoenix admits that her memories take over her.
The reader learns that the grandson drank lye about three years ago. It burned his throat which closes, and he cannot breathe. The medicine keeps him alive. Phoenix also relates that she never went to school. She tells the nurse that she and her grandson are the only two living of her family. Her grandons's sweet spirit never gives in to his terrible plight.
The nurse hands her the medicine. The once harsh attendant gives Phoenix a nickel in the spirit of Christmas. Phoenix is thrilled. With the ten cents that she now has, Phoenix buys her grandson a Christmas present. With renewed energy, medicine, and a present, Phoenix journeys back toward her grandson awaiting a kiss and a hug.