Like many of her stories, Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path,” first published in 1941, is a portrayal of life and characters in the American South. It is a deeply symbolic story, describing the hardship of a difficult journey to talk about wider struggles. As with any use of symbolism, interpretation can differ depending on the reader, but if we take into account the connections between the plot, characters, and setting, and the symbols used to portray them, some meanings become clear.
Eyes as a symbol are often connected to vision, seeing, the future, and the idea of a deeper meaning. Here we learn that Phoenix’s eyesight is failing: "her eyes were blue with age," we discover at the start. The mention of her eyes is a way to show her age and frailty while also suggesting there are things to see underneath the surface, that there are ways to see beyond what is in front of our eyes. Phoenix, for example, uses memory as a way to see, working her way along the familiar tracks. Eyes as a symbol can suggest we look deeper into the meaning of the story, and as such, their introduction right at the start of the story hints to the reader that there is more to this story than first meets the eye. As we see the story almost entirely through the eyes of Phoenix, perhaps there is a suggestion that we need to consider how reliable she is as a narrator. The presence of the scarecrow later in the story can be understood in a similar way: things are not necessarily what they seem.
The symbolism of the dress works in a few ways. Firstly, it helps the reader quickly understand something about the kind of person the protagonist is. Her background, social class, and wealth (or rather lack of it) are implied by what she is wearing: “a dark striped dress reaching down to her shoe tops, and an equally long apron of bleached sugar sacks.” Secondly, it represents the image she presents to those she sees along the way in the story. In the same way as it helps the reader see the character, the dress is the public image Phoenix shares with the world around her. Thus while to some it could represent an effort at respectability and dignity, to others it shows a poor woman who they feel they don’t have to take seriously. Finally, the dress can be understood as a restrictive, constraining factor—it is the dress that slows her down by getting caught in the bush; it is the dress she tries to keep in good condition as she makes her way to the town. The dress can then be seen as symbolic of both her personality and the interplay between Phoenix and the world around her.
Barbed wire is one of the many hurdles along the way. It gives us a chance to understand better Phoenix’s struggles—literally on this journey and symbolically in her life. Various difficulties face her: thick forest, hills, thorny bushes, a creek, the barbed-wire fence, the dog and the ditch, the hunter, and aspects of the city. All can be understood symbolically, and many are related to racism and marginalization. Barbed wire, particularly when combined with the image of the cotton field, suggests a reference to slavery and imprisonment. The reference to the cotton field is even more explicit in making this connection: “Big dead trees, like black men with one arm, were standing in the purple stalks of the withered cotton field.” Bearing in mind the setting, the American South, and that many slaves were made to work picking cotton, it is hard to ignore this symbolism.
The scarecrow introduces the idea of the fine line between life and death: “At first she took it for a man. It could have been a man dancing in the field. But she stood still and listened, and it did not make a sound. It was as silent as a ghost.” It is a foreshadowing of Phoenix’s death, as well as an echoing of all the people who have lived and died in slavery in the fields. It encourages the reader to think about what it means to be alive, what it means to be free. It also makes us question appearances and reality, suggesting the first impression might not be the correct one. It is worth considering how this theme connects to the reliability of Phoenix's viewpoint and memory.
Finally, trees are often used to focus attention on the passing of time, the cycles of nature and life, and the seasons. We know Phoenix is aging, and the trees with their dead leaves, silver—not green and blossoming—remind us of the inevitability of death and decay. With this, however, comes the possibility of new life and new seasons.