At a Glance

"A Worn Path" key characters:

  • In "A Worn Path," elderly African American woman Phoenix Jackson endures poverty and racism, but a deep and abiding love for her grandson gives her life meaning.
  • Phoenix’s grandson, a little boy whose injuries have never healed after he drank lye, is her only relative. “We is the only two left in the world,” Phoenix says.
  • Through her efforts to relieve her grandson’s suffering and to bring him joy, Phoenix illustrates love, courage, compassion, sacrifice, dignity, and the strength of the human spirit.
  • The young hunter Phoenix encounters on her way to Natchez treats her with condescension and attempts to frighten her, unaware of her mission and the strength of her character.
  • An attendant and the nurse at the medical clinic in Natchez demonstrate the racism and lack of respect afforded to Phoenix by society because she is old, poor, and African American.

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(Short Stories for Students)

The Grandson
Phoenix's grandson does not appear in the story, but his medical condition is the reason for the old woman's journey. Having swallowed lye (a strong alkaline substance used in making soap) several years ago, the boy's throat is permanently damaged. His grandmother is the only relative he has left, and she makes the trip to town to receive medicine that soothes the pain. There has been no change in his condition, Phoenix tells the nurse, he sits with his "mouth open like a little bird." She also says that though he suffers, he has "a sweet look." Though Phoenix says he is not dead, some critics have theorized that he is.

The Hunter
The hunter encounters Phoenix after she has fallen into a ditch, the unfortunate result of an encounter with one of his dogs. He helps her up, demonstrating his willingness to assist a person in need. But his subsequent conversation with her reveals his disrespect for her and biased attitudes towards African Americans in general. When he learns that she intends to walk to town, he assumes Phoenix is not able to make the long journey and he tells her to go home; he has no qualms about issuing the order. But when she persists, he relents, assuming that the only reason "old colored people" would embark on such a long trail would be to see Santa Claus. In a second instance of disrespect, he tells Phoenix that he would give her a dime if he had one, unaware that Phoenix has already picked up the nickel that fell out of his pocket. In a third example, he points a gun at her face and asks if it scares her. He is amused by the fact that it does not, further emphasizing his insensitivity. Throughout the conversation, he refers to her as "Granny," as the other characters do, all of whom are unwilling to look beyond Phoenix's age and see her as an individual.

Phoenix Jackson
Old Phoenix Jackson is the protagonist of the story. She is described in vivid colors, suggesting her lively nature: she wears a red rag in her hair and her skin is described as "yellow," "golden" and "copper." Her age is indicated by the way she moves—slowly, in small steps, with the assistance of a cane—and by the wrinkles on her face, which form "a pattern all its own ... as though a whole little tree stood in the middle of her forehead." Because of her frailty, her determination to continue on her journey highlights her resilience and perseverance. Old Phoenix sees the Natchez Trace as an obstacle course, one that she tolerates with a fair sense of humor, despite her lapses into senility. She tells the animals to stay out of her way. Her dress gets caught in a thorny bush, and she tells the thorns "you doing your appointed work. Never want to let folks pass, no sir." When a dog causes her to fall into a ditch she cannot climb out of, she simply awaits help—her sense of determination never succumbs to defeat.

When Phoenix is finally rescued by the white hunter, she suffers his indignations with stoic resolve. He tells her to go home and finally assumes that the purpose of her long journey is to see Santa Claus. Phoenix does not feel the...

(The entire section is 1,041 words.)