A Worn Path Summary

A Worn Path” is a short story by Eudora Welty in which Phoenix Jackson travels into town to get medicine for her grandson.

  • Phoenix Jackson walks to the town of Natchez on a worn, rugged path to buy medicine for her grandson. She knows the way by heart, having made the trip many times. 
  • As she walks, Phoenix frets over potential delays and talks amiably to the plants and animals she encounters.
  • At the clinic, Phoenix is treated poorly, but she endures the humiliation in order to get the medicine. She decides to buy her grandson a paper windmill, thinking it will make him happy.

Summary

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

On a cold, bright day in December, an elderly Black woman is walking along a path through a forest of pine trees. Phoenix Jackson, who is very small and very old, walks slowly and taps the ground with her cane. She is wearing a long dark dress and an apron made of old sugar sacks. Everything about her is tidy, except her shoes, which are unlaced, with the shoelaces dragging on the ground. As she walks and swishes her cane, Phoenix calls upon all the animals of the forest—foxes, rabbits, owls, and beetles—to stay out of her path.

The path goes up a hill, and Phoenix feels as though something is holding her back. Then she reaches the top and goes down through the oak trees, but before she reaches the bottom, a thorn bush catches at her dress, and she has to struggle to extricate herself. She crosses a creek safely, walking over the log laid across it, and rests for a while on the other side. She has to get through a barbed-wire fence and then through a field of dead corn, where there is no path. There she sees a tall black figure, which she thinks may be a man, then a ghost. Reaching out to touch the figure, she finds that it is a scarecrow and is so relieved that she dances with it.

Phoenix comes to the wagon track, the easy part of her journey, then to a place where the path crosses a swamp. Here, she is surprised by a big black dog, which comes out of the weeds and knocks her into a ditch. After some time, a young white man who is out hunting with his dog on a chain finds her there and lifts her out of the ditch. The young man calls her “granny” and asks where she lives. He is surprised when she tells him how far away it is and says she should go home now, but Phoenix says she has to go to town. The hunter laughs and says that she is clearly eager to see Santa Claus, and at this point, Phoenix sees a nickel fall out of his pocket. She distracts him by pointing out the black dog which knocked her into the ditch, admiringly saying that he is not scared of anyone. While the hunter’s dog is fighting the black dog, she picks up the nickel, remarking, as a bird flies past, that she has now come to stealing, and God is watching her.

The hunter returns, saying that he has scared the black dog away. He points his gun at her and asks whether she is frightened, but Phoenix says she has seen plenty of guns go off “and for less than what I done.” The hunter remarks on her fearlessness and says he would give her a dime if he had any money with him. He then goes off in a different direction, and Phoenix can hear him shooting as she continues her journey. She walks on and sees the city of Natchez before her. The bells are ringing, and there are Christmas lights strung everywhere.

In the city, in the midst of the crowd, Phoenix sees a lady carrying a pile of Christmas presents wrapped in red, green, and silver. She asks the lady to lace up her shoes, and the lady sets down her parcels and does so. Phoenix then enters a large building and goes into a doctor’s office, where an attendant sitting behind a desk querulously asks her name and what is the trouble with her. Phoenix does not reply, and the attendant asks if she is deaf, but at that moment, a nurse who knows Phoenix comes in and asks her to take a seat. She asks Phoenix how her grandson is and repeats the question with greater urgency when Phoenix fails to answer, finally asking if the boy is dead.

Phoenix suddenly replies, saying that her memory failed her, and she had forgotten why she made this long trip. Her grandson’s throat is just the same. He swallowed lye three years ago and is sometimes unable to swallow. Phoenix describes him, sitting at home, wrapped up in a patchwork quilt, “holding his mouth open like a little bird.” She will never forget him again. The nurse gives her the medicine, noting in her book that Phoenix is a charity case, and Phoenix puts the bottle in her pocket and thanks her.

As Phoenix leaves, the attendant asks if she can give Phoenix a few pennies from her purse, since it is Christmas. Phoenix remarks that five pennies is a nickel, and the attendant gives her a nickel. Phoenix puts the nickel in her hand beside the one dropped by the hunter. She says that she is going to buy her grandson a little paper windmill, which will seem to him to be a wonderful thing. She gives a nod, leaves the doctor’s office, and walks slowly down the stairs.

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