William M. Jones (review date 1957)

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SOURCE: "Welty's 'A Worn Path'," in The Explicator, Vol. XV, No. 9, June, 1957, item 57.

[In the following review, Jones examines the ways in which "deeper meaning" is contained in the apparently simple language and structure of "A Worn Path. "]

Unlike many of Eudora Welty's stories, "A Worn Path" has a deceptively uncomplex organization. The major portion of the story simply recounts the journey of an old Negro woman into Natchez at Christmas time to obtain medicine for her grandson. Underneath this seemingly naive account lies a persistently annoying suggestion that there is more to the story than appears at a casual reading.

The first hint of the deeper meaning is the old woman's name: Phoenix Jackson. The third sentence announces this name to the reader. The end of the first paragraph tells the reader that the stick she carries "made a grave and persistent noise in the still air, that seemed meditative like the chirping of a solitary little bird." The next paragraph describes her: first her great age, then her color. " . . . a golden color ran underneath, and the two knobs of her cheeks were illumined by a yellow burning under the dark." Her hair was black, but "with an odor like copper."

These seemingly coincidental references to birds, great age, and gold might be overlooked, but the reader who knows some of Welty's other work is on the lookout for significant names. Some of the more obvious are Mr. Pétrie in "Petrified Man," Mrs. Rainy in "Shower of Gold," and Florabel in the early version of "The Burning" (Delilah in the later version).

By the end of the second paragraph the reader of "A Worn Path" may well suspect that the name Phoenix, like these others, is not a name chosen at random, nor even because it is a very reasonable name for a Southern Negro woman. The references at the beginning of the story announce rather clearly that a comparison with the legendary bird is intended. The similarity becomes more pronounced as the story progresses. After Phoenix's arduous journey into town, she arrives at the charity ward where she is to obtain the medicine for her grandson, "and there she saw nailed up on the wall the document that had been stamped with the gold seal and framed in the gold frame, which matched the dream that was hung up in her head." In this office Phoenix stands, "a fixed and ceremonial stiffness over her body." Obviously, like the embodiment of the original Egyptian sun-god that flew home every five hundred years, this Mississippi Phoenix has returned by instinct to the source of her strength to renew her own youth.

Having said simply, "Here I be," she refuses to speak until "At last there came a flicker and then a flame of comprehension across her face, and she spoke." She tells of her little grandson who has swallowed lye: "He going to last. He wear a little patch quilt and peep out holding his mouth open like a little bird." When she receives the medicine, the nurse offers her a nickel. "Phoenix rose carefully and held out her hand." Obviously, in the burning and the rising again, the phoenix legend has been carefully paralleled.

There is little doubt that the phoenix is at the core of the story. The main question is why Miss Welty should make the old Negro so completely analogous to this bird. There are numerous possibilities which might involve an allegorical account of the Southern Negro's plight, but in the light of the story's phoenix symbol...

(This entire section contains 815 words.)

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any such suggestion seems to lack support.

The main reason that Miss Welty chose a Negro seems to be that only a relatively simple, uncivilized individual is worthy of representing the powerful force which inspires such love as hers for her grandchild. Her long journey shows that all her struggles, all her fears, even her petty theft of a nickel from a hunter, were endured almost gaily because she was filled with a love which would cause rejuvenation at the end of the journey. The hunter whom Phoenix met on the path was in the country for what he could get for himself in the form of game; the woman who laced Phoenix's shoes was encumbered with packages; the nurses dispensed cold charity. But Phoenix has no selfish motives, no hate for anything. She does not condemn thorns for holding her, the hunter for pointing his gun at her, or a dog for knocking her into a ditch. She is the one who will last and return down the wellworn path. She moves instinctively, gaily, toward what love demands. As she herself said, "I bound to go on my way." As she leaves the doctor's office she is "going down," but the title itself suggests that she will, like the Phoenix of antiquity, return to the source of her youth again and again.


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“A Worn Path” by Eudora Welty

The following entry presents criticism on Welty’s short story “A Worn Path,” first published in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1940 and later in A Curtain of Green, 1941. See also Eudora Welty Short Story Criticism.

“A Worn Path” is considered one of Welty’s most distinguished and frequently studied works of short fiction. Deceptively simple in tone and scope, the story is structured upon a journey motif that incorporates a rich texture of symbolic meaning. According to Alfred Appel, “ ‘A Worn Path’ passes far beyond its regionalism because of its remarkable fusion of various elements of myth and legend, which invest the story with a religious meaning that can be universally felt.”

Plot and Major Characters

“A Worn Path” describes the journey of an elderly Black woman named Phoenix Jackson who walks from her home to the city of Natchez to get medicine for her sick grandson. The landscape as Phoenix perceives it becomes a primary focus of the vividly evoked narrative; nature is depicted as alternately beautiful and an impediment to Phoenix’s progress. As she walks, she struggles against intense fatigue and poor eyesight, as well as such obstacles as thorn bushes and barbed wire. The combined effects of her old age, her poor vision, and her poetic view of the world heighten the lyricism and symbolism of the narrative. For example, she mistakes a scarecrow for a dancing “ghost” until she draws close enough to touch its empty sleeve. A particularly tense episode occurs when she encounters a white hunter who appears friendly at first but then makes a condescending suggestion that she is probably “going to town to see Santa Claus.” When he inadvertently drops a nickel, Phoenix distracts him and manages to pick it up, feeling that she is stealing as she does so. The hunter suddenly points his gun at her, and while he may have seen her pick up the nickel, it is unclear what his actual motivation is for this threatening gesture. Phoenix, however, does not appear afraid; the hunter lowers his gun, and she manages to continue on her way unharmed and without returning the nickel. Finally reaching the “shining” city of Natchez, Phoenix enters the “big building”—presumably a hospital—where a nurse questions her about her grandson, asking if he has died. Phoenix remains strangely quiet at first, as if deaf to the nurse’s questions. She then apologizes, claiming that her memory had suddenly failed her—that for a moment, she could not remember why she had made her long journey. The story concludes with Phoenix’s heartfelt description of her grandson, whose throat was injured several years ago when he swallowed lye. She declares that he is not dead and receives the medicine for him, along with another nickel, with which she decides to buy him a Christmas present—a “little windmill.”

Major Themes

Phoenix Jackson emerges in “A Worn Path” as a character who endures; she is the symbol of perseverance, stamina, and life in the face of hardship and death. Commentators have noted that her sheer fortitude in making the long journey on foot and alone points to these qualities, as does the mythological significance of her name, Phoenix—an Egyptian bird symbolizing resurrection. Christian symbolism is also apparent in the narrative. For example, the fact that the story is set during the Christmas season has led some critics to associate Phoenix’s journey with that of a religious pilgrimage; her selfless concern for her grandson is interpreted as representing the true spirit of giving and self-sacrifice. While much of the story’s substance rests on the imagistic and symbolic use of language, the action of the plot also shows Phoenix in direct conflict with the outside world—a society run by white people who have little respect or understanding for her situation. A man hunting in the forest assumes that she is going to town merely “to see Santa Claus,” while a nurse dismisses her as a “charity” case and offers little sympathy for the plight of Phoenix’s sick grandson. Because the story is completely free of authorial intrusion or explanatory commentary, the images and events that occur in the narrative remain open to a variety of reader interpretations.

Critical Reception

Critical discussion of “A Worn Path” largely has been concerned with thematic interpretation of the work, particularly the story’s racial, mythological, and Christian motifs. Focusing predominantly on the story’s Christian motifs, Neil D. Isaacs viewed Phoenix’s Christmas journey as a “religious pilgrimage” with an ironic end that suggests “greed, corruption, cynicism.” Also emphasizing Christian themes in the work, Sara Treeman pointed to story’s theme of self-sacrifice, noting that the worn path “is worn because this is the symbolic journey made by all who are capable of self-sacrifice, of whom Christ is the archetype.” The presence of secular mythology in the text has also been the subject of discussion by such critics as Dan Donlan, who perceived the prominence of the Egyptian myth of the phoenix in the structure and symbolism of the story. Frank Ardolino argued for a conflation of mythological and Christian interpretations of the work, showing how “along with the Christian motifs of rebirth, the cycles of natural imagery presented create the theme of life emerging from death.” The racial element of “A Worn Path” has also been a subject of critical discussion. William Jones commented in 1957 that “the main reason that Miss Welty chose a Negro seems to be that only a relatively simple, uncivilized individual is worthy of representing the powerful forces which inspires such love as hers for her grandchild.” John R. Cooley, in contrast, argued for a broader social reading of the story, criticizing the sentiment of the work and accusing Welty of failing to “develop her racial portraits with sufficient sensitivity or depth.” Nancy K. Butterworth responded to Cooley’s assessment and others with the observation that “such polemical demythologizings conflict with Welty’s persistent refusal to use fiction as a platform, particularly for political or sociological issues, as well as her downplaying and even disavowal of racial implications in her stories.”

Neil D. Isaacs (essay date 1963)

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SOURCE: "Life for Phoenix," in Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXI, No. 1, Winter, 1963, pp. 75-81.

[In the following essay, Isaacs examines how plot, setting, and Christian motifs contribute to multiple layers of meaning in "A Worn Path. "]

The first four sentences of "A Worn Path" contain simple declarative statements using the simple past of the verb "to be": "It was December . . . , " " . . . there was an old Negro woman . . . ," "Her name was Phoenix Jackson," "She was very old and small. . . ." The note of simplicity thus struck is the keynote of Eudora Welty's artistic design in the story. For it is a simple story (a common reaction is "simply beautiful"). But it is also a story which employs many of the devices which can make of the modern short story an intricate and densely complex form. It uses them, however, in such a way that it demonstrates how a single meaning may be enriched through the use of various techniques. Thus, instead of various levels of meaning, we have here a single meaning reinforced on several levels of perception. Moreover, there is no muddying of levels and techniques; they are neatly arranged, straightforwardly presented, and simply perceived.

The plot-line follows Phoenix Jackson, who is graphically described in the second paragraph, on her long walk into Natchez where she has to get medicine for her grandson. The trek is especially difficult because of her age, and in the process of struggling on she forgets the reason for the struggle. At the end she has remembered, received the medicine, and decided to buy the child a Christmas present with the ten cents she has acquired during the day.

What makes this a story? It barely appears to fulfill even Sidney Cox's generous criterion of "turning a comer or at least a hair." But it does belong to a specific story-teller's genre familiar from Homer to Fielding to Kerouac—"road" literature. This form provides a ready-made plot pattern with some inherent weaknesses. The story concerns the struggle to achieve a goal, the completion of the journey; and the story's beginning, middle, and end are the same as those of the road. The primary weakness of this structure is its susceptibility to too much middle.

A traditional concept of road literature, whether the mythical journey of the sun across the heavens or a boy's trip down the Mississippi or any other variation, is its implicit equation with life: the road of life, life's journey, ups and downs, the straight and narrow, and a host of other clichés reflect the universality of this primitive metaphor. "A Worn Path" makes explicit, beginning with the very title, Eudora Welty's acceptance of the traditional equation as a basic aspect of the story. In fact, the whole meaning of "A Worn Path" will rely on an immediate recognition of the equation—the worn path equals the path of life—which is probably why it is so explicit. But we needn't start with a concept which is metaphorical or perhaps primitively allegorical. It will probably be best for us to begin with the other literal elements in the story: they will lead us back to the sub- or supra-literal eventually anyway.

An important part of the setting is the time element, that is, the specific time of the year. We learn immediately that it is "a bright frozen day" in December, and there are several subsequent, direct statements which mark it more precisely as Christmas time. The hunter talks about Santa Claus and the attendant at the hospital says that "It's Christmas time," echoing what the author has said earlier. There are several other references and images forming a pattern to underline the idea of Christmas time, such as "Up above her was a tree in a pearly cloud of mistletoe." [Italics in this paragraph all mine.] Notice especially the elaborate color pattern of red, green, and silver, the traditional colors of Christmas. It begins with Phoenix's head "in a red rag, coming along a path through the pinewoods" (which are green as well as Christmas trees). Later she sees "a wagon track, where the silver grass blew between the red ruts" and "little strings of trees silver in their dead leaves" (reddish brown?). This pattern comes to a climax in the description of the city and the lady's packages, which also serves to make explicit its purpose, return it to the literal: "There were red and green electric lights strung and crisscrossed everywhere. .. . an armful of red-, green-, and silver-wrapped presents."

From the plot-line alone the idea of Christmas doesn't seem to be more than incidental, but it is obvious from the persistent references that Christmas is going to play an important part in the total effect of the story. Besides the direct statements already mentioned, there proliferates around the pattern throughout the story a dense cluster of allusions to and suggestions of the Christmas myth at large and to the meanings of Christmas in particular. For instance, as Phoenix rests under a tree, she has a vision of a little boy offering her a slice of marble-cake on a little plate, and she says, "That would be acceptable." The allusion here is to Communion and Church ritual. Later, when a bird flies by, Phoenix says, "God watching me the whole time." Then there are references to the Eden story (the ordering of the species, the snake in summer to be avoided), to the parting of the Red Sea (Phoenix walking through the field of corn), to a sequence of temptations, to the River Jordan and the City of Heaven (when Phoenix gets to the river, sees the city shining, and hears the bells ringing; then there is the angel who waits on her, tying her shoes), to the Christ-child in the manger (Phoenix describing her grandson as "all wrapped up" in "a little patch quilt. .. like a little bird" with "a sweet look"). In addition, the whole story is suggestive of a religious pilgrimage, while the conclusion implies that the return trip will be like the journey of the Magi, with Phoenix following a star (the marvelous windmill) to bring a gift to the child (medicine, also windmill). Moreover, there's the hunter who is, in part, a Santa Claus figure himself (he carries a big sack over his shoulder, he is always laughing, he brings Phoenix a gift of a nickel).

The richness of all this evocation of a Christianity-Christmas frame of reference heightens the specific points about the meanings of Christmas. The Christmas spirit, of course, is the Christian ethic in its simplest terms: giving, doing for others, charity. This concept is made explicit when the nurse says of Phoenix, "She doesn't come for herself." But it had already been presented in a brilliant piece of ironic juxtaposition [Italics mine]:

She entered a door, and there she saw nailed up on the wall the document that had been stamped with the gold seal and framed in the gold frame which matched the dream that was hung up in her head.

"Here I be, " she said. There was a fixed and ceremonial stiffness over her body.

"A charity case, I suppose," said an attendant. . . .

Amid the Christmas season and the dense Christmas imagery, Phoenix, with an abiding intuitive faith, arrives at the shrine of her pilgrimage, beholds a symbolic crucifixion, presents herself as a celebrant in the faith, and is recognized as an embodiment of the message of the faith. This entire scene, however, with its gold trimming and the attitude of the attendant, is turned ironically to suggest greed, corruption, cynicism—the very opposite of the word used, charity. Yet the episode, which is Phoenix's final and most severe trial, also results in her final emergence as a redeemer and might be called her Calvary.

Perhaps a better way to get at the meaning of Christmas and the meaning of "A Worn Path" is to talk about life and death. In a sense, the meaning of Christmas and that of Easter are the same—a celebration of life out of death. (Notice that Phoenix refers to herself as a June bug and that the woman with the packages "gave off perfume like the red roses in hot summer") [Italics mine.] Christ is born in the death of the year and in a near-dead nature-society situation in order to rejuvenate life itself, naturally and spiritually. He dies in order that the life of others may be saved. He is reborn out of death, and so are nature, love, and the spirit of man. All this is the potent Christian explanation of the central irony of human existence, that life means death and death is life. One might state the meaning of "A Worn Path" in similar terms, where Phoenix endures a long, agonizing dying in order to redeem her grandson's life. So the medicine, which the nurse calls charity as she makes a check in her book, is a symbol of love and life. The windmill represents the same duality, but lighter sides of both aspects. If the path is the path of life, then its end is death and the purpose of that death is new life.

It would be misleading, however, to suggest that the story is merely a paralleling of the Christian nature-myth. It is, rather, a miniature nature-myth of its own which uses elements of many traditions. The most obvious example is the name Phoenix from the mythological Egyptian bird, symbol of immortality and resurrection, which dies so that a new Phoenix may emerge from its ashes. There is a reference to the Daedalus labyrinth myth when Phoenix walks through the corn field and Miss Welty puns: "Through the maze now,' she said, for there was no path." That ambivalent figure of the hunter comes into play here as both a death figure (killer, bag full of slain quail) and a life figure (unconscious giver of life with the nickel, banisher of Cerberus-like black dog who is attacking Phoenix), but in any case a folk-legend figure who can fill "the whole landscape" with his laugh. And there are several references to the course of the sun across the sky which gives a new dimension to the life-road equation; e.g., "Sun so high! . . . The time getting all gone here."

The most impressive extra-Christian elements are the patterns that identify Phoenix as a creature of nature herself and as a ritual-magic figure. Thus, Phoenix makes a sound "like the chirping of a solitary little bird," her hair has "an odor like copper," and at one point "with [her] mouth drawn down, [she] shook her head once or twice in a little strutting way." Even more remarkable is the "fixed and ceremonial stiffness" of her body, which moves "like a festival figure in some parade." The cane she carries, made from an umbrella, is tapped on the ground like a magic wand, and she uses it to "switch at the brush as if to rouse up any hiding things." At the same time she utters little spells:

Out of my way, all you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons, and wild animals! . . . Keep out from under these feet, little bob-whites. . . . Keep the big wild hogs out of my path. Don't let none of those come running my direction. . . . Ghost, . . . who be you the ghost of? . . . Sweetgum makes the water sweet. . . . Nobody know who made this well for it was here when I was born.... Sleep on, alligators, and blow your bubbles.

Other suggestions of magic appear in the whirling of cornhusks in streamers about her skirts, when she parts "her way from side to side with the cane, through the whispering field," when the quail seem "unseen," and when the cabins are "all like old women under a spell sitting there." Finally, ironically, when Phoenix swings at the black dog, she goes over "in the ditch, like a little puff of milk-weed."

More or less remote, more or less direct, all these allusions are used for the same effect as are the references to Christianity, to reinforce a statement of the meaning of life. This brings us back to the basic life-road equation of the story, and there are numerous indications that the path is life and that the end of the road is death and renewal of life. These suggestions are of three types; statements which relate the road, the trip, or Phoenix to time: Phoenix walks "with the balanced heaviness and lightness of a pendulum in a grandfather clock"; she tells the hunter, "I bound to go. . . . The time come around"; and the nurse says "She makes these trips just as regular as clockwork." Second (the most frequent type), there are descriptions of the road or episodes along the way which are suggestive of life, usually in a simple metaphorical way: "I got a long way" (ambiguously referring to past and future); "I in the thorny bush"; "Up through pines. . . . Now down through oaks"; "This the easy place. This the easy going." Third, there are direct references to death, age, and life: Phoenix says to a buzzard, "Who you watching?" and to a scarecrow, "Who be you the ghost of? For I have heard of nary death close by"; then she performs a little dance of death with the scarecrow after she says, "My senses is gone. I too old. I the oldest people I ever know."

This brings us full circle in an examination of the design of the story, and it should be possible now to say something about the total meaning of "A Worn Path." The path is the path of life, and the story is an attempt to probe the meaning of life in its simplest, most elementary terms. Through the story we arrive at a definition of life, albeit a teleological one. When the hunter tells Phoenix to "take my advice and stay home, and nothing will happen to you," the irony is obvious and so is the metaphor: don't live and you can't die. When Phoenix forgets why she has made the arduous trek to Natchez, we understand that it is only a rare person who knows the meaning of his life, that living does not imply knowing. When Phoenix describes the Christ-like child waiting for her and says, "I not going to forget him again, no, the whole enduring time. I could tell him from all the others in creation," we understand several things about it: her life is almost over, she sees clearly the meaning of life, she has an abiding faith in that meaning, and she will share with her grandson this great revelation just as together they embody its significance. And when Phoenix's "slow step began on the stairs, going down," as she starts back to bring the boy the medicine and the windmill, we see a composite symbol of life itself, dying so that life may continue. Life is a journey toward death, because one must die in order that life may go on.

Further Reading

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Champion, Laurie, ed. The Critical Response to Eudora Welty's Fiction. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994, 368 p.

Reprints in one volume the most significant critical essays on Welty's short fiction.

Dazey, Mary Ann. "Phoenix Jackson and the Nice Lady: A Note on Eudora Welly's 'A Worn Path'." American Notes & Queries XVII, No. 6 (February 1979): 92-3.

Examines the thematic significance of a specific episode in which Phoenix Jackson asks "a nice lady" to tie her boot laces.

Keys, Marilynn. "'A Worn Path': The Way of Dispossession." Studies in Short Fiction 16, No. 4 (Fall 1979): 354-56.

Concentrates "on only the major elements of the story: the reason for the journey, the obstacles which the protagonist encounters and overcomes, and the ultimate triumph of love over adversity."

Lewis, Thomas N. "Textual Variants in 'A Worn Path'." Eudora Welty Newsletter XVI, No. 1 (Winter 1992): 11-13.

Provides an analysis of textual variants that were "introduced into 'A Worn Path' between its publication in The Atlantic Monthly in February 1940 and its appearance in A Curtain of Green in November 1941."

Nostrandt, Jeanne R. "Welty's 'A Worn Path'." The Explicator 34, No. 5 (January 1979): 33.

Perceives "traces of an old Norse tale" in "A Worn Path."

Welty, Eudora. "'Is Phoenix Jackson's Grandson Really Dead?'" Critical Inquiry 1, No. 1 (September 1974): 219-21.

Welty responds to readers' most-frequently-asked question.

Westling, Louise. "Apprenticeship," in Women Writers: Eudora Welty, edited by Eva Figes and Adele King, pp. 85-126. Houndmills, England: Macmillan Education Ltd., 1989.

Includes discussion of an event that inspired Welty's "A Worn Path."

Additional coverage of Welty's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 5, 14, 22, 33; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography 1941-1968; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 9-12R; Contemporary Authors Bibliography Series, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 32; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 102, 143; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 12; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, Vol. 87; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors: Most-Studied Authors Module; DISCovering Authors: Novelists Module; Major Twentieth-Century Writers; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 1; and World Literature Criticism.

Saralyn R. Daly (essay date 1964)

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SOURCE: "'A Worn Path' Retrod," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 1, No. 2, Winter, 1964, pp. 133-39.

[In the following essay, Daly responds to interpretations of Phoenix Jackson's character offered by critics Neil D. Isaacs and William M. Jones. "Phoenix encounters not mere difficulty on her path, but evil," argues Daly.]

Neither Neil D. Isaacs nor William M. Jones in their recent articles [Isaacs, "Life for Phoenix," Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXI, Jan.-Mar. 1963; Jones, Explicator, Vol. XV, June 1957] has succeeded in completely explicating Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path." Both comment on the associations brought to mind by the first name of Phoenix Jackson and, between them, deal with most of the suggestive details of the story—the incidents of the journey, the hunter and his dog, the woman who laced Phoenix's shoes, the two nickels, the grandson, the Christmas imagery, and the journey motif itself. Both reach somewhat the same conclusions: Jones, that the journey is a parable of the renewal of Phoenix's youth, a renewal which will be effected at the end of her journey through her great love for her grandson; Isaacs, that as Phoenix symbolizes "life itself, dying so that life [her grandson] may continue," so "life is a journey toward death, because one must die in order that life may go on."

Mr. Isaacs' interpretation is most subject to question, for he frequently overlooks segments of the context which clarify the symbolism, especially of those figures which he feels support a Christian reading of the story. The lady who ties Phoenix's shoes is more than the angel Isaacs indicates; her odor of roses is characteristic of the Blessed Virgin, who extends immediate, ungrudging love in her service to the old woman. The helpless, diseased child Phoenix attends hardly suggests the Christ-child, and Isaacs' identification of the windmill as a star is quite arbitrary, overlooking the remarks Phoenix herself makes about that purchase. Nor does the hunter equate well with Santa Claus (Isaacs notes his ambivalence as a "death figure"), for the nickel was not given, but stolen, as Phoenix herself was well aware.

The Biblical, classical, and folktale elements are evident; however, they are usually colored by a negative aura that has been overlooked. Phoenix encounters not mere difficulty on her path, but evil; and she is aware that she participates in that evil. This aspect of her journey and her own final comments and gestures lead to an existential interpretation of the story. What Ruth M. Vande Kieft has said [in Eudora Welty, 1962] of George's career in Delta Wedding might be said of Phoenix's journey: ".. . it is the existential act which makes life significant, beautiful, even heroic."

Though in "A Worn Path" Miss Welty has employed a frame similar to that of Pilgrim's Progress, a journey through life's difficulties to the Celestial City, Phoenix is not Christian. Being Phoenix, the Phoenix, she has come before and will make the same journey again, for the end of her quest is not conclusive; it is only comforting, and Phoenix knows this. In her travels there is alert self-appraisal, not the naive wonder and carelessness of Christian. In the cyclic certainty with which Phoenix travels her worn path, Miss Welty alters Bunyan's comment on the relationship of man to God. The only book-length study of her works sums up her philosophy, cautiously, as "pessimistic and existential." Miss Vande Kieft concludes, "Through the experience of her characters she seems to be saying that there is no final meaning to life beyond the human meanings; there is no divine 'surround,' no final shape to total reality, no love within or beyond the universe . . . however much of it there may be burning in individual, isolated human hearts. Through an inevitable act of mind and heart .. . the individual makes whatever meaning is to come out of chaotic reality, and this is the existential act."

That Phoenix moves through "chaotic reality" is evident from the rhythms of her experience, a continual fluctuation between negation and affirmation, defined at last only by her own gestures. She makes a December journey, the sad journey of year's end with the folk associations of death, but revitalized, as is appropriate to the self-destroying, self-renewing phoenix-bird, by the promise of Christmas. She is aware that the medicine of charity (love, of course) dispensed in the heavenly office is not enough; she must buy with her begged and stolen nickels a suitable Christmas present, an unbelievable windmill for her grandson.

A first look at Phoenix reveals her depth. She is an old woman with "numberless branching wrinkles" forming a "whole little tree in the middle of her forehead," a visible mark of her experience, knowledge of good and evil. Her path leads through pine woods, the needles of the evergreen trees almost too bright to look at in the sun, the shadows dark like a menace in this very vitality. Trudging along, she warns away the small animals of the pine thicket: "Out of my way, all you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons, and wild animals! . . . Keep out from under these feet, little bob-whites. . . . Keep the big wild hogs out of my path. Don't let none of those come running my direction. I got a long way.'" She shifts in this list from small, relatively harmless beasts (three are tricksters by reputation, the owl and beetle slightly ominous) to the bob-white, which she might inadvertently injure. But her reiterated anxiety to avoid the wild hogs indicates her awareness of danger; wild hogs recall the Gadarene swine, bearers of evil spirits, a menace on the "long way" of life.

When the path leads upward, Phoenix tries. "'Something always take a hold of me on this hill—pleads I should stay.'" It is "too bright" evergreen youth that Phoenix would not rush past. But at the summit she appraises her progress with a "full, severe look behind here where she had come" and is able to generalize upon the change marked in her life: '"Up through pines. . . . Now down through oaks.'" Youth with its hint of excess is reluctantly abandoned; entrance into maturity is a descent, necessary but not desired.

Going downward, despite her caution ("eyes opened their widest"), she blunders into thorns, the "appointed," ritualistic difficulty on her path. She made the error as she sought again the vital greenness she is reluctant to acknowledge is past: "'I in the thorny bush,' she said. . . . Old eyes thought you was a pretty little green bush'" (Miss Welty's italics). Freeing herself with difficulty, she retrieves the umbrella-rib cane (a skeleton of former shelter) which has protected her so far. The delay has been regrettable, for now the sun is high and "the thick tears" go over her eyes for this passing of the noon of life. "'The time [she notes] getting all gone here'."

At the foot of the hill she recognizes and surmounts the "trial" of crossing a creek on a log. She trusts her eyes no longer but, in an act of faith, shuts them and levels the protective cane before her. By this heroic and absurd method, "like a festival figure in some parade", she crosses the waters into the land of the dead. And Phoenix, phoenix-like, feels younger. "'I wasn't as old as I thought,' she said."

A vision follows. When a little boy brings her a piece of marblecake, Phoenix declares it "acceptable," the Biblical term for an offering without blemish (Leviticus 22:20, Philippians 4:18), which may be recognized by the "lips of the righteous" (Proverbs 10:32). But when she reaches for it, she finds nothing but her own hand in the air. If the sacrament of communion has been offered, it is illusory.

Now to penetrate a barbed-wire fence around the land of the dead, Phoenix has "to creep and crawl, spreading her knees and stretching her fingers like a baby trying to climb the steps." She has become as a little child to enter. But when she seems safely through the fence, images of death cluster about her: dead trees in a withered cotton field, a buzzard, a field of dead corn where a maze replaces the reliable path, and finally a ghostly scarecrow with an "emptiness as cold as ice" within his coat. Macabrely Phoenix dances with the scarecrow, while dry husks, contrasting with the lightly falling pine cones of youth, blow down. Throughout this segment of her ordeal, Phoenix is faithful and challenging. '"Who you watching?'" she questions the buzzard. To the scarecrow, "'Ghost,' she said sharply, 'who be you the ghost of? For I have heard of nary death close by'." Shutting her eyes, she "sees" the scarecrow's emptiness and laughs at the hollowness of death. The same faithful gesture which carried her over the waters now affords this revelation.

Phoenix then reaches the "easy way," where going past trees with silvery dead leaves and boarded up cabins "silver from weather," she explains, "'I walking in their sleep'." The imagery is no longer darkly ominous, as she identifies death with sleep. She drinks from a spring sweetened with sweet-gum, a spring older than she is, older than the pheonix; hence, eternal. It is a purification ritual, a rite of renewal; but Phoenix is not yet beyond all menace.

In the dark shadows of the live oaks where the road has gone deeply down, a black dog reminiscent of Faust's devilish poodle, surprises the meditating old woman. She flourishes her cane ineptly; the animal pushes her into the ditch. It is a symbolic burial in the dead weeds. A dream comes, but when she extends her hand, for the second time it is to nothing: "nothing reached down and gave her a pull." The black dog stands guard grinning until a young white man, a hunter who has killed a bob-white, the bird Phoenix did not wish to injure, appears. After her valiant and jocular reply to his laughing question, he lifts her from the ditch. She then creates the diversion which causes him and his dog to chase the black dog away. Their absence enables Phoenix, with her eyes closed again, painstakingly to pick up a nickel he has dropped. When a bird flies by, she sees what she has done: "'God watching me the whole time. I come to stealing'."

This incident is the most puzzling of the story. Having chased away the black dog, the young man returns and mockingly threatens Phoenix with his gun. She is not afraid: she has '"seen plenty go off closer by . . . and for less than what I done'." If this is an acknowledgement that her sins deserve punishment, her fearless humility absolves her, for the young man lowers his gun. He, of course, does not know she has his nickel and apparently lies about his inability to give her a dime. He has advised her once to go home. Now he repeats that advice, adding '"stay home, and nothing will happen to you'." As Phoenix is on no natural journey, the paradoxical truth of his statement has the nature of a final temptation and confirms the negative nature of a young man. Though he has raised her from the gravelike ditch and confronted the black dog, these acts are in response to gestures made by Phoenix. Essentially he denies her charity and would discourage her mission. But Phoenix is '"bond to go on [her] way'," and has nearly reached her destination.

The images which describe Natchez, "the paved city," at Christmas time clearly suggest the Celestial City Bunyan's Christian sought. The service of the lady with the presents is the only freely given charity that Phoenix will receive. Even as she climbs a circular tower to the office which is her destination, she relies on her feet, not her eyesight. Seeing to Phoenix has never been believing. Here she sees "nailed up on the wall the document that had been stamped with the gold seal and framed with the gold frame, which matched the dream that was hung up in her head." But the dreams to which Phoenix has reached have left her hand in empty air, and so it will be again.

Having ceremonially announced her presence, Phoenix is silent. Soon she has annoyed both the attendant and the nurse by her lack of response to their questions. She waits for a long time in her dream of a celestial office where "Your Father knows what your needs are before you ask him" (Matthew 6:8), but here they do not know her needs nor can they satisfy her with their prescription. Phoenix recognizes that, as with the hunter in the woods, she must maneuver, and she does.

Apologetically she explains that her inattention is due to age: '" .. . too old at the Surrender'" to go to school, she seems in this context to antedate the fall of the angels and thus is conditioned to expect a spiritual immediacy and understanding clearly not available here. Times have changed, she notes, as "a flicker and then a flame of comprehension" cross her face. In her moment of exultation she had forgotten the reason for her trip, but now she denies that her grandson is dead. '"He is just the same, and I forgot it in the coming'." Gradually winning her way to the city, triumphing over the obstacles of the worn path, Phoenix feels sufficient identity with her descendant ('"We is the only two left in the world'.") to forget for a moment his condition. But though he is like her in that '"He going to last,'" there is a difference: '"He not get his breath. He not able to help himself. .. . He suffer. Between them ranges the gamut of humanity, those who act and those who endure.

Phoenix, who acts, has made her habitual, repetitive journey of aspiration; but the medicine she requests is only "soothing medicine," which even the nurse acknowledges "never heals." Though she regards the grandson as an "obstinate case," the nurse must give Phoenix medicine; for the doctor, authority behind the gold-framed, goldsealed diploma in the tower-office of celestial Natchez, has said Phoenix could have a bottle as long as she came for it. Though the agents of heaven are officially impatient, there is at least the promise that this charity or love will be there when humanity applies. The gesture will elicit a response.

The story, however, cannot end until Phoenix makes it clear that the celestial medicine is not enough. When the attendant offers the old woman a few pennies, Phoenix "stiffly" (she is as obstinate a case as her grandson) begs a nickel. Thus she obtains as much from heavenly charity as she stole from her savior-tempter in the woods. With these funds of mixed virtue, she announces that she will buy her grandson a little paper windmill, a wonder. '"He going to find it hard to believe there such a thing in the world'." So Phoenix will return to the child who is part of herself with more than the soothing medicine of charity. She will militantly '"march . .. back'" carrying an unbelievable symbol, the emblem of Don Quixote's undefeated madness.

Quixote, despite his tremendous efforts to assist humanity, spent himself entirely on illusion. This recollection provides a final comment on Phoenix's existential career. She will eternally tread the worn path for her obstinate human case; she knows that she does not return with a cure, but it seems to help. And for the heavenly office, which has a fifty percent share in the Christmas gift, the irrationality crystallized by the windmill balances the score with a similar implication: charity, regardless of efficacy, will always be dispensed whenever old Aunt Phoenix comes. In the end, Miss Welty would apparently suggest that neither humanity nor heaven forsakes aspiration. Though the ultimate issue remains doubtful, the act elicits a response. This communication is not entirely satisfactory, but it is a comfort, as it creates a meaning.

Alfred Appel, Jr. (essay date 1965)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2453

SOURCE: "They Endured': Eudora Welty's Negro Characters," in A Season of Dreams: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Louisiana State University Press, 1965, pp. 137-71.

[In the following excerpt, Appel argues that " 'A Worn Path ' is an effort at telescoping the history of the Negro woman. " He examines the role of folk tradition and religious faith in the story.]

"Pageant of Birds," "Ida M'Toy," and the stories, "The Burning," "Livvie," and "A Worn Path," suggest that Miss Welty has a special sympathy and respect for the Southern Negro woman and that, like writers as various as Faulkner and James Baldwin, she seems to feel that the Negro's endurance in the South has had much to do with the strength of the Negro woman. "A Worn Path" is an effort at telescoping the history of the Negro woman. The setting is the "worn path" of the ancient Natchez Trace, and the story presents the greatest myths in the context of a folk tradition.

Its action concerns an old Negro woman, Phoenix Jackson, who, on a cold December day, makes an arduous trip from deep within the backcountry to the town of Natchez to get medicine for her sick grandson. She has been making the trip regularly since he swallowed lye two or three years before. Phoenix is not merely any old woman, as the story proves. It is no accident that she is named "Phoenix," for Miss Welty presents her as a symbol of the immortality of the Negro's spirit of endurance. Her cane, tapping the frozen eath, "made a grave and persistent noise . . . that seemed meditative like the chirping of a solitary little bird" [italics mine]. At the end of the story she refers to her grandson as "a little bird." Her endurance is etched in her wrinkled face, which seems to glow with an inner splendor: the "golden coloring" of her skin and the "yellow burning" which illuminates the two knobs of her cheeks remind us that her namesake was the legendary, selfperpetuating embodiment of the Egyptian sun god. When her weak eyes mistake a scarecrow for a ghost, she asks, "Who be you the ghost of? For I have heard of nary death close by." "I the oldest people I ever know," she tells the scarecrow. She never went to school because "I was too old at the Surrender." When she drinks from a spring flowing through a hollow log, she says, "Nobody know who made this well, for it was here when I was born." She is ageless. In fact, she defies death. When she sees a buzzard, she asks him, "Who you watching?" Like the clay bed of the Natchez Trace, Phoenix seems to disappear back into time. One might almost imagine her as an aged Florabel, the Negro slave who rose out of the ashes in "The Burning," a Phoenix emerging from the Civil War cinders.

Like "Keela" and "Powerhorse," "A Worn Path" provides an excellent example of how an eminently "modern" story teller makes use of folk materials. Miss Welty avoids confusing the folk with the folksy—of parodying her material. She seems to have discovered that the important relationship of formal art to folk art rests in the archetypes of primitive ritual, in the great world myths, rather than in reproductions of the "picturesque" surface texture of folk life. In "A Worn Path," these great myths are embedded within the folk context. Phoenix's journey is thus rendered as a minor-scale Odyssey. In the frozen, forbidding backcountry of the Natchez Trace, Phoenix is faced with at least twelve obstacles which require a heroic exertion on her part to surmount. Phoenix knows no fear: "Out of my way," she cautions all the animals that lurk in the thickets, "keep the wild hogs out of my path. Don't let none of those come running my direction. I got a long way." The rhythm of her speech communicates her determination; the tone of "I got a long way" is biblical. She struggles up a steep hill ("seem like there is chains about my feet"). In the valley she gets caught up in a "thorny bush." With eyes closed ("now comes the trial"), she bravely mounts a log that crosses a creek. The strain of this effort causes an hallucination. Then she encounters and survives a barbed-wire fence. Phoenix sees a buzzard and recalls the obstacles she had to bypass on previous journeys: "Glad this ain't the season for bulls . . . and the good Lord made his snakes to curl up and sleep in the winter." She makes her way through the pathless maze of a dead cornfield, the stalks rising "taller than her head." She follows the track across a dark swamp ("sleep on Alligators, and blow your bubbles"). A stray dog knocks her over and into a ditch, "like a little puff of milkweed." She is dazed and helpless; a white hunter finds her. He helps Phoenix up and urges her to "go on home, Granny!" She explains, portentously, "'I bound to go to town .. . the time come around.' He gave another laugh, filling [and, in Miss Welty's view, desecrating] the whole landscape. 'I know you old colored people! Wouldn't miss going to town to see Santa Claus!'" But Phoenix ignores this patronization and asserts her dignity. When a nickel falls out of the man's pocket onto the ground, she shrewdly tricks him into turning his attention to the dogs and then, with painstaking effort, manages to get the nickel into her apron pocket. Unaware of his "loss" the man returns from chasing the dogs. He teases Phoenix by pointing his rifle at her, giving her another opportunity to show her courage. "I'd give you a dime if I had any money on me," he says. The irony complete, they go their separate ways. Phoenix arrives in Natchez—it is Christmas time—and asks a passerby to lace up her shoe: "Do all right for the country," she says, "but wouldn't look right to go in a big building." When she finally arrives at the hospital, she encounters her final obstacles: a temporary loss of memory and the hospital nurses. Miss Welty has not wasted a detail; theme and action are woven together intricately.

Phoenix's safe arrival expresses one level of her triumph: her courage. Her encounters with the hunter and the hospital nurses present another kind of triumph, for they establish Phoenix's moral superiority, ironically so, since the whites treat her as an inferior: when she presents herself at the hospital desk—"Here I be!"—the nurse answers, "A charity case, I suppose." Phoenix then loses her memory. The first nurse is impatient, and, although the second nurse is initially polite, she is cruelly blunt when Phoenix fails to regain her memory immediately: "You mustn't take up our time this way. . . . Tell us quickly about your grandson and get it over with. He isn't dead is he?" When Phoenix speaks, the nurse interrupts her:

"All right. The doctor said as long as you came to get it, you could have it," said the nurse. "But it's an obstinate case."

"My little grandson, he sit up there in the house all wrapped up, waiting by himself" Phoenix went on. "We is the only two left in the world. He suffer and it don't seem to put him back at all. He got a sweet look. He going to last. He wear a little patch quilt and peep out holding his mouth open like a little bird. I remembers so plain now. I not going to forget him again, no, the whole enduring time, I could tell him from all the others in creation" [italics mine].

"All right." The nurse was trying to hush her now. She brought her a bottle of medicine. "Charity," she said, making a check mark in the book.

The hospital staff's lack of compassion highlights Phoenix's moral superiority. She is also "an obstinate case"; the nurses become aware of a mysterious barrier when they are unable to patronize Phoenix. The nurse gives Phoenix a nickel for Christmas but, like the hunter, is unsuccessful in patronizing Phoenix because, simply enough, she has a good use for the money: "I going to the store and buy my child a little windmill they sells, made out of paper. He going to find it hard to believe there such a thing in the world." Phoenix retains great dignity before the nurses because of her simplicity and devotion and, though illiterate, by her imagination and shrewdness. The joy that the little windmill will bring her grandson is the antithesis of the false Christmas spirit found in the town—from its electric light decor to the "charity" of its nurses. Phoenix is superior to the hunter and the nurses because of their complete inability to comprehend the profound source of her dignity and courage. That source is Phoenix's faith.

There is a deeply religious feeling manifest in "A Worn Path." Several times we are reminded that the story occurs at Christmas. Phoenix says, "God watching me the whole time." She marches across the treacherous log "like a festival figure in some parade"; when she presents herself at the hospital, "there was a fixed and ceremonial stiffness over her body"; and near the end of the story, she says, "I'll march myself straight back where he waiting, holding [the windmill] straight up in this hand"—the little toy assuming the attitude and importance of some religious banner, effigy, or offering. Her act of love is virtually ceremonial: the story opens with Phoenix coming along a path, walking "slowly in the dark pine shadows," and ends as "her slow step began on the stairs, going down." The landscape is strangely muted. Phoenix's cane makes a grave noise in the still air; "the sun made the pine needles almost too bright to look at"; "the cones dropped as light as feathers." Phoenix goes through silver grass, and through "the little strings of trees silver in their dead leaves, past cabins silver from weather, with the doors and windows boarded shut, all like old women under a spell sitting there. 'I walking in their sleep, ' she said, nodding her head vigorously" [italics mine]. Like a figure in a religious pageant, she sees herself as representative, as a personification: "I walking in their sleep." Phoenix's journey is presented as a kind of Christmas pageant or pilgrimage. When she sits down to rest, she sees up above her "a tree in a pearly cloud of mistletoe." But the setting and atmosphere of the backcountry are more than just seasonal; with their suspended, otherworldly quality they perhaps suggest the first Christmas season. When Phoenix begins her return journey, carrying the medicine and windmill, she is a kind of Magi, bringing gifts to a little grandson who, waiting alone, all wrapped up in a quilt, recalls the Christ child in the manger: "He got a sweet look . . . I could tell him from all the others in creation." Although the Christmas imagery need not be insisted upon, it is compatible with the story's extra-Christian mythic elements and reinforces our sense of "A Worn Path" as a celebration of life out of death. "I bound to go. . . . The time come around," Phoenix tells the hunter, referring not only to her trip for the medicine, but to her own mortality; "My senses is gone. I too old"; "Sun so high. . . . The time getting all gone here." With her death approaching, all of Phoenix's remaining energies go toward perpetuating the life of her grandson; "He going to last."

There is a sudden shift in tone from the poetic to the prosaic when Phoenix moves from the legendary, dreamlike backcountry world into the world of the town. As she enters the town, the rich nature imagery gives way to a blunt, drab, journalistic style. The shift in tone complements the setting and Phoenix's reaction to it: she "would have been lost if she had not distrusted her eyesight and depended on her feet to know where to take her." The red and green electric lights are strung and crisscrossed everywhere. The garish is revealed with quick, deft strokes: all the lights are turned on in the daytime, and the lady passerby who ties Phoenix's laces gives off perfume "like the red roses in hot summer." The town and its inhabitants are presented in contrast to Phoenix and the Natchez Trace. The Christmas color scheme on the lady's "armful of red-, green- and silver-wrapped presents" and in the tangles of electric lights is only a corruption of the red-green-and-silver tones that "decorate" the backcountry—just as the insensitive hunter and nurses are only shadows next to Phoenix and her deep, instinctual humanity, her serene acceptance of the death on which all future life is based.

"A Worn Path" passes far beyond its regionalism because of its remarkable fusion of various elements of myth and legend, which invest the story with a religious meaning that can be universally felt. The "worn path" Phoenix travels is the same one that man has always had to contend with—the well-traveled road of human suffering and isolation. But Phoenix, like the Hebrews and the early Christians, meets and endures her many tribulations, and through her courage and single-minded devotion, her buoyancy, serenity, and strength, she experiences something akin to God: "We is the only two left in the world," she says of her grandson; "he suffers and it don't seem to put him back at all. He got a sweet look. He going to last." Phoenix is as indomitable as the Natchez Trace, one of the last regions to preserve its identity. The Negroes are part of their tragic history and living folk tradition just as the Trace stretches into the past. They both represent values that have been obscured in the confusion of modern life. In "Some Notes on River Country," Miss Welty writes: "Whatever is significant and whatever is tragic in a place live as long as the place does. . . . Though they are unseen .. . the new life will be built upon those things, regardless of commerce and the way of rivers and roads and other vagrancies."

Created in the spirit of the "place," ageless Phoenix seems to span the years that extend from the death of the white heron ("A Still Moment") to the emergence of the modern town ("Petrified Man"). She transcends her region's geographical boundaries, for her celebration of life and her endurance—and that of the Negroes in the other stories and sketches—are presented by Eudora Welty as human qualities that man, whether Southerner or Northerner, Negro or white, must possess if, as Phoenix says of her grandson, "He going to last."

Sara Trefman (review date 1966)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 992

SOURCE: A review of "A Worn Path" in The Explicator, Vol. XXIV, No. 6, February, 1966, item 56.

[In the following review, Trefman argues that the protagonist's name, Phoenix, has Christian, as well as mythological, significance.]

In his discussion of Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path," (Explicator, June, 1957), William Jones identifies the central character, Old Phoenix, with the legendary bird of Egyptian folklore. Her arduous journey from her home, far out in the country, to the town of Natchez to help her ailing little grandson, is a journey of love, Jones suggests, that causes her own rejuvenation at its end. But perhaps her association with the Phoenix has even greater significance. This is, after all, a Christmas story, and when Phoenix and her grandson are viewed as different aspects of the same entity, this single being is clearly a symbol of Christ. Phoenix herself implies that she and her grandson are creatures apart, saying inexplicably that "we is the only two left in the world." And they are further identified with each other through bird imagery: Phoenix's cane makes a sound "like the chirping of a solitary little bird," and she steals the hunter's nickel as deftly as she would have lifted "an egg from under a sitting hen"; while her grandson, on the other hand, peeps out from his little patch quilt, "holding his mouth open like a little bird." Then, too, both reflect the purity and unworldliness of Christ: the grandson by his very youth and his fragile, dependent condition; the grandmother, by her great age which makes her strangely childish. However, she has the additional naivete of the untutored for, a freed slave, she never did go to school, being "too old at the Surrender." Finally, to both are attributed qualities long associated with Christ. The Phoenix, of course, is an established Christ symbol in its ability to resurrect itself, and the radiance that illuminates Phoenix's head, at times appearing through the "yellow burning" of her cheeks, and at other times seen as a "fierce and different radiation," seems very like a glory. The only things we are ever told about her grandson are that he is so special she "could tell him from all the others in creation," that he has a "sweet look," and that he suffers from a wound that never heals although it "don't seem to put him back at all." With his permanent wound, he recalls the maimed Fisher King of medieval literature who, like the Phoenix, originated in ancient folk-lore and developed, through later literatures, into a symbol of Christ.

The land that the maimed king ruled was a wasteland, and surely the land in which Phoenix and her grandchild live is a wasteland as well. She must journey over its "frozen earth," through its thorny bushes that only appear green to her old ruined eyes, pass its "big dead trees" standing in the "purple stalks" of "withered" cotton fields, and continue into fields of "dead corn."

The painstaking, often agonizing journey of the ancient woman, on which the story focuses, seems constantly to take on symbolic dimensions as it recalls the earlier journey of Christ up the hill of Calvary. "I got a long way," she moans at the outset, flicking the bushes to expose hidden menaces. And as she drags herself up a hill later on, she murmurs painfully that it "seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far." Significantly, it is thorns that tear at her long, full skirt, thorns that do their "appointed work." And in a tone full of foreboding, she comments that "the time getting all gone here." In addition, the entire journey reverberates with symbols from Christian tradition. As she enters a clearing she notes with relief that there is "no two-headed snake coming around that tree, where it come once." But, as with all tempters, it had taken "a while to get by him." Later, as she slyly pockets the hunter's nickel, a bird, traditional symbol of the Holy Spirit, flies by and Phoenix herself identifies him as she guiltily observes "God watching me the whole time." When she emerges at last from the darkness of the forest, Natchez is shining, bells ring out a joyous welcome, and a Christmas shopper kneels in unconscious adoration as she ties Old Phoenix's shoelaces.

Regarding the title of the story, the path along which the journey is made is not worn merely because the central character has undergone the trip before. Rather, it is worn because this is the symbolic journey made by all who are capable of self-sacrifice, of whom Christ is the archetype. Against self-sacrificing Phoenix, then, are juxtaposed the creatures of the wasteland. First there is the young, white hunter, a perfect contrast to the ancient Negress. He is destructive—from his bag hangs a dead bob-white "with its beak hooked bitterly"—and selfish, for although he says "I'd give you a dime if I had any money with me," he does not offer her the nickel he thinks is still in his pocket. These two do, indeed, go off "in different directions": Phoenix heads for the hospital for the medicine that will save her grandchild; while in the distance, the hunter's gun is heard "shooting again and again over the hill." The next inhabitants of the wasteland encountered are the nurse and attendant at the hospital, who dole out what is ironically termed "charity." Far too busy for charity, they caution Old Phoenix against taking up their time, and remind her that the medicine is available only as long as she can make the painful trip. Yet ironically it is with nickels from these two uncharitable souls that Phoenix will buy her beloved grandchild a little paper windmill for Christmas. And the most bitter irony of all is that as he looks at the little cross-shaped toy, he will indeed "find it hard to believe there is such a thing in the world."

Frank R. Ardolino (essay date 1976)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2530

SOURCE: "Life Out of Death: Ancient Myth and Ritual in Welty's 'A Worn Path'," in Notes on Mississippi Writers, Vol. IX, No. 1, 1976, pp. 1-9.

[In the following essay, Ardolino attempts "to demonstrate that along with the Christian motifs of rebirth, the cycles of natural imagery presented create the theme of life emerging from death [in 'A Worn Path']."]

Although most critics of "A Worn Path" noting the story's careful blending of pagan myth, Christian allusion and folk story motifs have praised Eudora Welty's allusive technique of reinforcing meanings on the story's several levels of perception, they have nevertheless been divided in their assessment of its overall mood and theme. While some emphasize the patterns of Christian rebirth, others insist upon the darker existential meanings of carrying out the journey of life in a wasteland, with no hope of regeneration. In this paper I will attempt to demonstrate that along with the Christian motifs of rebirth the cycles of natural imagery presented create the theme of life emerging from death. Phoenix, who effects the rebirth of herself, her grandson and the earth through her perennial healing journey, represents the Kore figure—divine mother and child—who descends to Hades to recover her lost daughter and rises to earth where they are reborn. In sum, Phoenix's journey with its succession of deaths and resurrections parallels the pagan nature rituals at Eleusis where the eternal coming of life from death was celebrated.

The essential paradox of life coming from death is established in the first four sentences. Phoenix's journey begins in December, a "bright frozen day in the early morning." She is equated with the morning, the rising sun, for she is the immortal bird which rises from its own ashes as the sun rises, and dies only to be reborn. As Jones says: "Phoenix, in touch with the ancient sun and with nature, turns a sun-inspired force against the frozen earth about her" [William M. Jones, "Growth of a Symbol: The Sun in Lawrence and Eudora Welty," University of Kansas City Review, Vol. 26, 1959]. Phoenix's movement, "like the balanced heaviness and lightness of a pendulum in a grandfather clock," parallels the rhythm of her experience, a continual fluctuation between negation and affirmation.

As the embodiment of the cycles of death and rebirth, Phoenix becomes a ritualistic figure, a priestess who will bring about the rebirth of the sterile land. She is described as wearing a "dark striped dress reaching down to her shoe tops, and an equally long apron of bleached sugar sacks, with a full pocket. . . . " This last description emphasizes her ritual role as provider of nourishment for the land and her suffering grandson. When she crosses a creek by walking across a log, she is described as "putting her right foot out. . . leveling her cane fiercely before here, like a festival figure in some parade."

Yet Phoenix's powers as an effective nature priestess are threatened by imminent overthrow. She is very old, "her eyes . . . blue with age." Her shoelaces are untied so that "every time she took a step she might have fallen." Thorns grab her skirts and retard her progress:

. . . her skirts were full and long, so that before she could pull them free in one place they were caught in another. . . .

"I in the thorny bush," she said.

This precarious balance between Phoenix's regenerative powers and their sudden overthrow reinforces the primary poles of the story, life and death.

In accordance with this nature ritural, Phoenix reenacts the death and rebirth of the pagan vegetation gods Osiris, Attis and Adonis. She is identified with these ancient gods by her physical description and the vegetation about her: "Her skin had a pattern all its own of numberless branching wrinkles as though a whole little tree stood in the middle of her forehead. ... " She describes her journey as "Up through pines .. . now down through oaks." Phoenix is identified with the tree sacred to the vegetation gods, Attis and Adonis. Frazer describes the festival of Cybele and Attis at which the pine tree was revered: " . . . a pine tree was cut in the woods and brought into the sanctuary of Cybele, where it was treated as a great divinity." In addition, she wears a red rag, the sanguinary symbol of Adonis' death, for when he died "roses and anemones sprang from the blood of Adonis" [James Frazer, The Golden Bough, 1951]. Finally, Phoenix alludes to Adonis' violent death by a wild boar when she calls out: "Keep the big wild hogs out of my path. Don't let none of those come running my direction. I got a long way."

Phoenix is also associated with mistletoe, which in the winter remains green, thus symbolizing immortality. "Up above her was a tree in a pearly cloud of mistletoe." As Frazer points out, the mistletoe is equated with the regenerative powers of the sun. Appropriately, Phoenix's skin is described as "having a golden color . . . underneath, and the two knobs of her cheeks were illumined by a yellow burning under the dark." Her cane, which is made from an umbrella and which she taps on the frozen ground in front of her, suggests the talismanic golden bough of mistletoe which enabled Aeneas to confront the horrors of Hades. She uses the cane as a support and it symbolizes her role as the nature priestess who will ultimately bring rain to soften the frozen earth. But at this point in her journey the cane's powers do not prevent her from being overturned by a Cerberus-like dog.

Her fall down the hill is a steady descent into the deepest pit of Hades. At the bottom of the hill she makes a series of feeble attempts to rise against the demonic forces arrayed against her regenerative journey. This section certainly merits the "existential" label [Saralyn] Daly has appended [in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 1, 1964], for Phoenix moves ahead only from sheer Sisyphean obstinacy and there is little hint of the resurrection she will effect at the end.

After she passes through the thorns, Phoenix "stood free, and after a moment dared to stoop for her cane." But again she must immediately pass through a trial of crossing a creek. Having passed this test, she rests on the bank and imagines that "a little boy brought her a plate with a slice of marble cake on it. . . . When she went to take it there was just her own hand in the air." Next, she crawls through a barbed-wire fence and emerges safely: "At last she was safe through the fence and risen up out in the clearing." However, her "resurrection" is another illusion, for now she is among the "big dead trees, like black men with one arm, standing in the purple stalks of the withered cotton field. There sat a buzzard." Once more she is in the land of the dead: "She passed through the old cotton and went into a field of dead corn.... Through the maze now .. . for there was no path." The pun on maze-maize indicates the labyrinthine city of the dead. As J. P. Guepin explains [in The Tragic Paradox: Myth and Ritual in Greek Tragedy, 1968], the labyrinth is "Another version of the realm of the dead. .. . It is easy to enter, but difficult to leave. ... " Phoenix meets the ruler of the underworld in the form of a scarecrow, who inside his coat had "an emptiness cold as ice."

Rather than succumb to the death which this scarecrow represents, Phoenix invites this ghost to dance:

"I ought to be shut up for good," she said with laughter. "My senses is gone. I too old. I the oldest people I ever know. Dance, old scarecrow . . . while I dancing with you."

Her behavior parallels Theseus' dance of life in the labyrinth where "there is an expression of the victory of life over death . . . in the labyrinth dance the dancers who gyrate together and turn back again, following the pattern of the labyrinth, first have a stifling sensation, and then feel free again, as if they are turning from death of life."

After passing through a land of enchantment, drinking sweet water from a well, Phoenix enters a new road: "Deep, deep the road went down between the high green-colored banks. Overhead the liveoaks met, and it was as dark as a cave." Again, this description represents the paradox of life-in-death, death-in-life, the road leading to a cave of darkness, but surrounded by green banks and live oaks. Once more Phoenix is knocked into a ditch by a Cerberus-like black dog where she "dies" and undergoes another illusory resurrection: "Down there her senses drifted away. A dream visited her, and she reached her hand up, but nothing reached down and gave her a pull."

The hunter chases the black dog away, unwittingly provides Phoenix with a nickel, but at the same time, has a dead bobwhite hanging from his basket, another black dog on a chain, threatens Phoenix with his gun, and warns her not to go any further.

Not only does Phoenix resemble Aeneas in his descent into the underworld, but she also parallels the death and rebirth of Persephone. Persephone was abducted into Hades while she was picking flowers in much the same way as Phoenix is meditating when the dog knocks her into the ditch. Persephone took the pomegranate seeds as Phoenix takes the nickel from the hunter, the god of rich, Pluto. And finally, Persephone's rise from Hades marks the return of spring, just as Phoenix's rebirth will bring about a renewal of the wasteland and her maimed grandson.

In this latter regard, Phoenix serves also as a Demeter-figure who wanders the sterile earth looking to recover her lost child. Her journey to find a cure for her grandson's illness resembles in its travail C. Kerenyi's description [in Essays on a Science of Mythology, 1948] of the wanderings of the Kore figure: "To enter into the figure of Demeter means to be pursued, to be robbed, raped, to fail to understand, to rage and grieve, but then to get everything back and be born again. This realizes the universal principle of life, the fate of everything mortal." The city of Natchez represents the destination of Phoenix both as mythical bird and Kore figure. For the former, Natchez appears to be the sacred city of the sun to which the mythical phoenix was said to make a pilgrimage after immolating itself and then rising from its own ashes. But, in reality, Natchez is the city of darkness, the corrupt, paved Hades created by the forces of sterility where Phoenix, as Kore figure, must struggle to recover her grandson from the grip of death. Alfred Appel notes its garish harshness [in A Season of Dreams: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, 1965]: "As she [Phoenix] enters the town, the rich nature imagery gives way to a blunt, drab, journalistic style. . . . The garish is revealed with quick, deft strokes: all the lights are turned on in daytime. . . . The Christmas . . . tangle of electric lights is only a corruption of the red-green-and-silver tones that 'decorate' the backcountry. . . . "

Phoenix is forced to struggle for life in this neon land of the dead just as she had done earlier in the wilderness. As before, she manages to turn darkness into light, to bring life from death by obtaining the medicine. Her experience in the winding tower parallels the ritual recovery of the lost Proserpine at Eleusis as described by Kerenyi:

The Eleusianian experience began with sorrow, the wandering quest that corresponded to the wanderings of Demeter herself and her lamentations. Eleusis was the place of the finding of the Kore. In this finding something was seen—no matter through what symbols—that was objective and subjective at once. Objectively, the idea of the goddess regaining her daughter, and therefore herself, flashed on the experient's soul. Subjectively, the same flash of revelation showed him his own continuity, the continued existence of all living things, the not-knowing, the failure to understand that attached to the figure of the grieving Demeter, ceased. The paradox contained in the living idea—that, in motherhood, death and continuity are one in the losing and finding of the Kore—is now resolved.

Under the harsh interrogation of the doctor, Phoenix becomes mute, forgets her grandson, and the reason she came to Natchez. But as she sits down, she begins to reenact this ritual discovery of the Kore: '"Here I be,' she said. There was a fixed and ceremonial stiffness over her body." Finally, she remembers and rediscovers her mission:

"It was memory fail me. My little grandson, he is just the same, and I forgot it in the coming."

The curing of her grandson's affliction epitomizes the theme of life out of death. Two years ago he swallowed lye, both poison and deception, but now "it don't seem to put him back at all. He got a sweet look. He going to last." Through her healing journey, Phoenix has brought about the rebirth of the lost god.

The paper windmill that Phoenix promises to buy for her grandson is also an apt symbol for the mystery of the precarious resurrection of life from death. The paper windmill is, on one hand, an emblem of the fragility of her quixotic quest for rebirth: "She will militantly "'march . . . back' . . . carrying an unbelievable symbol, the emblem of Don Quixote's undefeated madness" (Daly). On the other hand, the windmill is a star of good fortune, a blessing for her grandson, a symbol of the regenerative process of nature connected both with grain and water.

Kerenyi explains that the introduction of the mown ear of grain on the last day of the Eleusinian mysteries "was a symbol and example of how things come to be death and birth; a symbol of Persephone's fate, which is the whole meaning of Demeter's fate too." The connection of the windmill with water also has a relation to the Eleusinian rites where the tipping over of two vessels shaped like spinning tops had a cyclical significance: "There is no reason to doubt that it was water and no other liquid that flowed to east and west out of the overturned vessels, that is, in the directions of birth and death. . . . The primal element was expected to go on working for the realization of this idea, the idea of eternal birth." Thus, Phoenix's windmill signifies the cycle of life, the perennial rebirth of the grain.

Although the story ends with Phoenix "going down," the symbolic pattern clearly indicates that she will rise like the sun and that her grandson and the wasteland will be reborn. The Christian promise of sanctification and rebirth hinted at by the dove symbolism (Phoenix and her grandson are compared to birds; Phoenix sees a "mourning dove" and a dove watches her steal the nickel) is ultimately fulfilled by Phoenix's healing journey and the recovery of her grandson's voice.

"Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.

The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land."

(Song of Solomon 2:10-13)

Roland Bartel (essay date 1977)

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SOURCE: "Life and Death in Eudora Welty's 'A Worn Path'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 3, Summer, 1977, pp. 288-90.

[In the following essay, Bartel responds to standard critical interpretations of Phoenix Jackson's character in "A Worn Path, " noting "What concerns me about these discussions is that they treat Phoenix Jackson as a stereotype and allow the obvious archetypal significance of her name and her journey to overshadow the uniqueness of one of the most memorable women in short fiction."]

I have found Saralyn Daly's interpretation of "A Worn Path" to be basically sound [Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 1, Winter 1964], but the more I teach the story the more I become convinced that an additional comment is needed to bring out the richness of the central character, Phoenix Jackson.

As most critics have noted, Phoenix Jackson's first name links her to the Egyptian myth of the bird that renews itself periodically from its own ashes. Equally obvious is the quest motif associated with her annual journey to Natchez. What concerns me about these discussions is that they treat Phoenix Jackson as a stereotype and allow the obvious archetypal significance of her name and her journey to overshadow the uniqueness of one of the most memorable women in short fiction.

Phoenix Jackson is a very old woman who walks from the Old Natchez Trace into Natchez at Christmas time to get medicine for her grandson. Previous critics have noted the many ways in which the renewal myth applies to the frail grandmother and to the grandson for whom she undertakes the hazardous journey each year. I want to add the suggestion that the story operates on the psychological level also, that Phoenix Jackson must make the journey to sustain her own life, that her character becomes unusually poignant if we consider seriously the possibility that her grandson is, in fact, dead. The journey to Natchez then becomes a psychological necessity for Phoenix, her only way of coping with her loss and her isolation. As she says to the white hunter who twice urges her to give up the journey: "I bound to go to town, mister, the time come around" and "I bound to go on my way, mister." Having at first made the journey to save the life of her grandson, she now follows the worn path each Christmas season to save herself. Her survival depends on her going through a ritual that symbolically brings her grandson back to life.

The assumption that the grandson is dead helps to explain Phoenix Jackson's stoical behavior in the doctor's office. She displays a "ceremonial stiffness" as she sits "bolt upright" staring "straight ahead, her face solemn and withdrawn into rigidity." This passiveness suggests her psychological dilemma—she cannot explain why she made the journey. Her attempt to blame her lapse of memory on her illiteracy is unconvincing. Her lack of education is hardly an excuse for forgetting her grandson, but it goes a long way toward explaining her inability to articulate her subconscious motives for her journey.

When the nurse asks whether the grandson is dead, Phoenix suddenly remembers and then overcompensates. In her imagination she brings him back to life, her concluding comment sounding very much like the language of a person trying to revive the image of someone who has died: "I remember so plain now. I not going to forget him again, no, the whole enduring time. I could tell him from all others in creation."

The story ends with Phoenix going down the stairs. Ascending a stairway is associated in folklore and religion with entering a new level of life, with achieving one's destination. Descending a stairway has the opposite implication and has, since Dante's Inferno, often been associated with a descent into hell. When Phoenix ascends the stairs she knows she has reached her destination when she sees hanging on the wall the gold seal in the gold frame, "which matched the dream that was hung up in her head." After she gets the medicine from the nurse and the nickel from the attendant, she talks briefly about a paper windmill for her grandson, but then the story ends abruptly with her going down the stairs, a fact that suggests the end of her hope, possibly the end of her life. This interpretation strengthens the thematic unity and symmetry of the story by beginning and ending with references to death. At the beginning of the story Phoenix taps the frozen ground with her cane. At the end of the story, just before she goes down the stairs, she taps the wooden floor with her cane, an action reminiscent of the old man in Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale, who taps the earth with his cane seeking death.

Phoenix has to make herself and others believe that her grandson lives so that she can endure her hardships and her subconscious awareness of the imminence of her own death. Literally she seeks the city to give life to her grandson, but symbolically she needs the city to support her own life. Carl Jung has interpreted the city as the feminine principle in general and more specifically as a woman who cares for the inhabitants as if they were her children. When Phoenix enters the city she cannot trust her eyes, so she relies on her feet to take her to destination, another indication of the subconscious element of her journey.

If the journey is as much a necessity for the grandmother as for the grandson, then the episodes along the way take on added significance. After she crosses the creek with her eyes closed, she has a vision of a boy offering her a cake, quite possibly her deceased grandson. Her desperate need for companionship is demonstrated not only by this vision but also by her practice of talking to animals and objects, most of which she imagines rather than sees.

Phoenix Jackson thus emerges from the story as a distinctive person, a feeble old woman whose active imagination rescues her from the harshest aspects of her existence. She is driven to the necessity of inventing such details as make the last portion of her life bearable. If her grandson is dead, then the rebirth implied in her name is doubly pathetic: she unwittingly makes the journey to meet her own needs rather than her grandson's, and what begins as a life-sustaining journey seems to end in a journey of death. If the white hunter was right in saying that she hardly had enough time to return home if she started back immediately, she certainly will not make it back, literally or symbolically, after the passing of the additional time required to get to the city and the doctor's office. During the first part of the journey we get flashes of her sense of humor, but by the end of the story her senility seems to overcome her. The second sentence of the story, "Her name was Phoenix Jackson," seems to suggest by its brevity that all she has left in life is her name and all it implies. At the end of the story the impression prevails that she has risen from the ashes for the last time.

John R. Cooley (essay date 1982)

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"The Naturals: Eudora Welty," in Savages and Naturals: Black Portraits by White Writers in Modern American Literature, University of Delaware Press, 1982, pp. 129-37.

[In the following excerpt, Cooley examines Welty's portrayal of Phoenix Jackson and argues that "what is ultimately so disturbing about 'A Worn Path' is its very innocence and beauty. "]

"A Worn Path" has received a fair amount of critical attention, most of it presuming that Eudora Welty intended her protagonist, Aunt Phoenix Jackson, to be "a symbol of the immortality of the Negro's spirit of endurance," as Alfred Appel puts it [in A Season of Dreams: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, 1965]. The name Aunt Phoenix and the events of the story appear to parallel the legend of the Phoenix, thereby suggesting new life for the aged black woman. Neil Isaacs has suggested [in "Life for Phoenix," Sewanee Review, Vol. 71, 1963] that Phoenix's ailing grandson, to whom she brings medicine and a Christmas gift, may be seen as the infant Christ. His sickness will be healed through Phoenix's love and the medicine she brings from the city. One would think that death, rebirth, and perpetuation are central concerns in "A Worn Path." However, Welty may well have intended the title ironically, for the story she tells is filled with hints that neither Phoenix nor her grandson will long survive—that "A Worn Path" is not essentially about perpetuation and the joy of new life. Beyond her quaint charm, Aunt Phoenix seems too much in the tradition of the many black uncles and aunties admired by whites for their humble resignation to the conditions of their lives.

The story is handled almost entirely from the point of view of Aunt Phoenix. She inhabits a truly "primitive" landscape, "out by the old Natchez Trace." The old black woman, her head tied in a red rag of a bandana, sets out on an early December morning to walk to Natchez for medicine to ease the burns in her grandson's throat, caused two or three years earlier by swallowing lye.

The reason for Phoenix's trip is not apparent until nearly the end of the story. Instead, one follows the delightful old woman through forest and field, listening as she talks to herself and to the plants and animals of her domain:

Out of my way, all you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons and wild animals! . . . Keep out from under these feet, little bobwhites. . . . Keep the big wild hogs out of my path. Don't let none of those come running in my direction. I got a long way.

Eudora Welty creates a woman who is supremely at home in the primitive landscape. Various signs tell her she should stay at home in the woods, "and nothing will happen to you." At the center of the story is the white myth of black contentment in pastoral or primitive settings. John Edward Hardy's observations on Welty's use here of the nature myth are most astute. Welty is aware of this myth of blacks as "naturals." As Hardy has said, she risks letting this form of primitivism run away with the story, since it is so seductive and so skillfully developed. The white reader may identify with the hunter whom Phoenix meets on her way to Natchez. When he learns she is walking all the way to town, he laughs, "Now you go on home, Granny!" He gives another laugh, filling the whole landscape. "I know you old colored people! Wouldn't miss going to town to see Santa Claus!". The point, of course, is that she is not "colored people," that she is not going to see Santa Claus, and that he does not "know" her. Perhaps Welty intended the hunter to represent many of her readers—people who, like the hunter, might think they know how charming it is to live in the country and how happy the blacks are who live there. But Welty's reinforcement of the nature myth throughout the story makes this position all the easier to maintain. Like the white hunter, the reader may be tempted to view Phoenix, in [John Edward] Hardy's words, [in Images of the Negro in American Literature, 1966] "as one of a race apart, about whom we are obliged to feel no more than a certain condescending curiosity."

Appel has observed that when Phoenix begins her return, bearing the medicine, she is a kind of Magus, "bringing gifts to a little grandson who, waiting alone, all wrapped up in a quilt, recalls the Christ child in a manger." Appel, Isaacs, and Jones discuss the story in terms of Phoenix's strength of character, her love for her grandson, and the endurance of black people that she exemplifies. What must be added is the context in which these virtues are to be seen. Hardy alludes to this when he refers to the story's "scathing indictment" of white civilization (its self-indulgence, its materialism) and in the "soothing medicine" it offers "to heal the hurts of that 'stubborn case,' black mankind."

The medication Phoenix brings is nothing but a soothing, temporary relief for the permanently injured throat of her grandson. One of the nurses even asks if her grandson has died yet. Since the injury took place three years earlier they probably know that special care is needed to cure the boy; the medicine they dispense merely reopens the throat. Is not the absurdity of many black lives in America symbolized in this situation: the permanent injury, the racist condescension and occasional charity offered by white society, the promises of medication and relief (the white lie—itself another kind of lye)?

Black people are able to survive because they live close to the land, according to the white myth of blacks as "naturals." As Phoenix represents aged endurance, her grandson is the future. One's sympathy is drawn to this image of a grandmother and child wrapped in a patchwork quilt, "holding its mouth open like a bird," partly because it reminds one of the madonna and child. It is difficult to cut through the reverence and romance that cloud the story, however, in order to see the babe as a pathetic image of life caught in the stranglehold of white civilization. What has happened to the child's parents, one must ask, that his grandmother must struggle to keep him alive and give him love?

The greatest danger in this story is in imagining that the little grandson will miraculously recover and Aunt Phoenix will not have to take the worn path to Natchez again. Then she could die content in the knowledge that her grandson would grow strong and become a natural man, as comfortable in this land as she has been during her long lifetime. But there are disquieting factors that make this romance unworkable. White society does not seem willing to incur the cost of special care; the situation may well remain as it is until Phoenix dies. The irony of her name lies here; there will be no "little bird" to perpetuate her life. Rather than seeing Phoenix consumed by fire and her young rising from the ashes, one sees instead her offspring slowly dying of ashes, lye being made from wood ashes. The myth of the phoenix becomes a symbol of fatality in Eudora Welty's story.

What is ultimately so disturbing about "A Worn Path" is its very innocence and beauty. Although the story enlarges itself from a primitive idyll to hint at the nature of black and white life in the South, it does so entirely outside the consciousness of Phoenix. Phoenix is clever enough to sneak a nickel from a white hunter and takes pleasure in getting a white lady to tie her shoe, but the reader has no more idea what thoughts cross her consciousness while trudging that worn path than one has of Sam Fathers's thinking about slavery and his Chickasaw heritage in Faulkner's "The Bear." The charm, the determination, the endurance, and the love are about all one sees in Phoenix's character. Further, if Welty intended Phoenix to be a metaphor for the predicament of being black in America, then the implications of the old lady's naiveté and helplessness are even more disturbing.

James Walter (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: "Love's Habit of Vision in Welty's Phoenix Jackson," in Journal of the Short Story in English, No. 7, Autumn, 1986, pp. 77-85.

[In the following essay, Walter briefly surveys critical interpretations of "A Worn Path " and offers a reading of Phoenix Jackson's character, focussing in particular on the significance of her faith.]

Phoenix Jackson, the protagonist of Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path," is first described as coming along a path through pinewoods far out in the country near the Natchez Trace:

She was very old and small and she walked slowly in the dark pine shadows, moving a little from side to side in her steps, with the balanced heaviness and lightness of a pendulum in a grandfather clock. She carried a thin, small cane made from an umbrella, and with this she kept tapping the frozen earth in front of her.

As if her name were not signal enough of her association with time, the evocation of the grandfather clock implies not only the venerableness of time as Phoenix lives it, but also its repetitive, inflexible quality. Her progression is strictly proportioned to an objective order of time to which she responds with a curious mechanical tapping that only heightens the impression of time's domineering over her actions. If the "heaviness" of the clock's descending pendulum suggests the submission of her personal time to a natural cyclic law, the "lightness" of the pendulum's upward swing almost hints of a redeeming quality of freedom in Phoenix's actions. The full sweep of the pendulum, with its upward motion incorporated periodically into a pattern of temporally dominant gravity—just as Phoenix's journey is incorporated into a landscape of winter and death—symbolically captures the full range of the "habit of love" at the heart of this story's meaning.

Atypically for a short story, the meaning of "A Worn Path" is not something discovered by a character in the story; as Louise Cowan observes, "the discovery of [Phoenix's] inner burning .. . is not. . . based on an epiphany," since the protagonist undertakes the worn path "in full awareness" ["Imagination and Survival," Dragonflies, Vol. 3, 1974]. Already in its first two sentences, however, Welty's story deftly promotes a change in the reader's perspective that becomes, through the action's complete unfolding, a genuine deepening of knowledge. This epiphany in the reader imitates and participates in a revisioning of history like that promoted by New Testament faith: earlier events that had seemed limited to immediate and transitory significance are discovered, in time, to have been prefigurations of a hidden life whose reach and destiny continue through the present and ultimately transcend time.

Despite its simplicity, or perhaps because of it, "A Worn Path" has provoked far-ranging interpretations by a number of critics who agree, at least, that in some way the worn path of Phoenix figures the path of life. According to Sara Trefman ["Welty's 'A Worn Path'," Explicator, Vol. 24 February 1966], Phoenix is "clearly a symbol of Christ" and her journey reverberates with symbols from Christian tradition. Neil D. Isaacs argues [in "Life for Phoenix," Sewanee Review, Vol. 71, 1963] that throughout the story are "allusions to and suggestions of the Christ-myth at large and the meaning of Christmas in particular"; moreover, that "the whole story is suggestive of a religious pilgrimage" by which Phoenix, "with an abiding intuitive faith, arrives at the shrine of her pilgrimage." While emphasizing the resurrection aspect of Phoenix's journey and finding possible Israelite and Christian parallels for it, both these critics overlook the important motif of cyclic revolution which becomes even a structural element when Phoenix turns and begins to retrace her steps.

Another commentator who explores the path: life theme is Saralyn Daly, who accepts Ruth Vande Kieft's description of Welty's vision as "pessimistic and existential" [in Eudora Welty, 1962] and argues [in "'A Worn Path' Retrod," Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 1, 1964] that Phoenix ("not a Christian") follows a path that leads to no certain Christian reward or promise. Daly believes, rather, that the old woman proves herself a stoic who "moves through 'chaotic reality'" overcoming many obstacles, including her own naïveté, to mature in a wisdom that expects little from either nature or Christian charity.

My interpretation agrees with Isaacs' that the faith of Phoenix is teleological, but I would emphasize that its constancy matures and is expressed through the mediation of her care for what is natural and temporal. And certainly Phoenix's thoughtful reading of nature's signs in a teleological light renders questionable any idea that the reality she moves in is intrinsically chaotic.

The initial description of Phoenix notes a suffusing brilliance, but its meaning remains mysterious. Although her clothing, "a dark striped dress reaching down to her shoetops, and an equally long apron of bleached sugar sacks, with a full pocket," minimizes her personal presence, "a golden color ran underneath" her skin and "the two knobs of her cheeks were illuminated by a yellow burning under the dark." These carefully observed visual details lure the reader into the immediate presence of Phoenix without disclosing the secret of her journey's purpose. In an essay entitled "Is Phoenix Jackson's Grandson Really Dead?" Welty recalled the experience that gave her the story:

One day I saw a solitary old woman like Phoenix. She was walking; I saw her, at middle distance, in a winter country landscape, and watched her slowly make her way across my line of vision. The sight of her made me write the story. ... I brought her up close enough, by imagination, to describe her face, make her present to the eyes, but the full-length figure moving across the winter fields was the indelible one and the image to keep, and the perspective extending into the vanishing distance the true one to hold in mind.

But Welty's fictional description of her heroine does more than bring her before the reader's eyes; by a skillful shift of perspective in the first two sentences, Welty transports the readers, not just from a vantage point of middle distance, but from a "far" distance to the nearness of an observer attending the approach of Phoenix along the path. By this almost imperceptible transposition, Welty quickly frees the reader from a more rationalist and urban interpretive context and inserts him into Phoenix's special world of nature, where she is "coming [not "going," as an objective reader might have expected] along a path through the pinewoods" (emphasis added). The last sensible detail in the description, her emanation of "an odor like copper," almost compels the reader's participation in the scene. Still, the signs and stages of her progress remain, for the reader, ambiguous, as do her "full pocket" and the "red rag" she wears on her head.

Phoenix's journey is along a path somewhat conventional for legendary questers: it goes through the thicket, up a hill and down, past the thorny bush, across the log over the creek, under the barbed-wire fence, through the "maze" of the cornfield, around the mocking scarecrow, over the whispering grass; when she finally reaches "easy going" on a familiar track, she still has to contend with the canine beast and the destructive hunter before she arrives at her goal—"Natchez shining," where Christmas bells ring and "dozens of little black children" whirl about her. Phoenix's responses to each obstacle along her path are not conventional, however; they reveal the imagination of a very unique and patient soul, capable of being fooled and even of fooling herself, but still resourceful enough to learn from her troubles and not just in spite of them.

As signs of her patience and her faith multiply, her comments to herself along the way express a preoccupation with time as a component of her journey. "Sun so high! . . . The time getting all gone here," she says in an early stage. As she bends down to drink from a hidden spring, she says, "Nobody knows who made this well, for it was here when I was born." She tells the hunter, "The time come around." And having achieved her object, she remarks, "We is the only two left in the world .. . He [Phoenix's ill grandson for whom she has travelled to town to get medicine] going to last. .. . I not going to forget him again, no, the whole enduring time. I could tell him from all the others in creation."

Parochial though her thought may seem, Phoenix moves the reader to question his own view of history and to expand his vision to the vast sweep, from the beginning to the end, that Phoenix includes in hers. The "well" she drinks from, coeval with her very life (which, she implies, has coexisted with all creation), figures a spiritual resource within Phoenix that is something like Augustinian memory, a faculty enabling the human to know innately more than the intellect can originate or tell. If Phoenix imagines herself as old as the creation and intends to remember her grandson until the resurrection (she implies this by her conviction that she will find him among "all the others" at the end of "enduring time"), then she must intuit her mortal journey as an epitome of time itself. Her essential mode of being was focussed symbolically in the "true" image of her that appeared to the writer's creative imagination: the full-length figure "moving across the winter fields" in a "perspective extending into the vanishing distance." This image suggests Phoenix's imitation of Christ, whose participation in a hidden totality unfolding in history is summarized in words John attributes to him: "I am Alpha and Omega" (Revelation 1:8; 22:13). At each stage of Phoenix's pilgrimage, her personal experience resonates for her with implications extending to and beyond time's borders. This mode Welty calls [in The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews, 1979] "the habit of love," which "cuts through confusion and stumbles or contrives its way out of difficulty, it remembers the way even when it forgets, for a dumbfounded moment, its reason for being."

Seeing the evidence of this visionary power as Phoenix overcomes her hardships, the reader is gradually persuaded that her perspective is not limited, at least not so severely as that of her secular foil on her path, the white hunter. In juxtaposition, Phoenix and the hunter personify two primordially opposed positions concerning the human's relation to nature and time:

"On your way home?"

"No sir, I going to town."

"Why, that's too far! That's as far as I walk when I come out myself, and I get something for my trouble." He patted the stuffed bag he carried, and there hung down a little closed claw. It was one of the bobwhites, with its beak hooked bitterly to show it was dead. "Now you go on home, Granny!"

"I bound to go to town, mister," said Phoenix. "The time come around."

The hunter represents a pragmatism that proudly preys on nature for security against the revolutions of fortune and time; Phoenix, in contrast, embodies love's patience, accepting the conditions time and nature impose, yet transforming them at each turn by a spiritual vision which sees them as mediators of a Divine providence—"watching me the whole time," she says. Even the dead she imagines as vital and present when, in passing old boarded-up cabins, she remarks with a vigorous nod, "I walking in their sleep."

Both the first and the last names of the heroine are significant in "A Worn Path." While "Phoenix" figures her continuous personal renewal, "Jackson" echoes the history of the specific place in which her actions are rooted (Jackson, Mississippi, near the Natchez Trace, named after Andrew Jackson.) Welty comments elsewhere on the important role of place in self-understanding:

One place comprehended can make us understand other places better. Sense of place gives equilibrium; extended, it is a sense of direction too. Carried off we might be in spirit, and should be, when we are reading or writing something good; but it is the sense of place going with us still that is the ball of golden thread to carry us there and back and in every sense of the word to bring us home [The Eye of the Story].

Phoenix Jackson's sense of her place, signalled in so many ways, is particularly emphasized by multiple references in the story to her feet, which seem to lead her along the earth almost instinctively to her destination; when she reaches the doctor's office, for example, "her feet knew to stop."

The key to Phoenix's sureness and largeness of vision, paradoxically, is her complete responsibility to and for temporality, her accepting and living profane time proportionate to its cyclic demands on her. She lives it, not in a romantic cult of immediacy, but carefully—in the same way she taps the frozen earth with her cane: probing, listening, seeing, listening. Although her meditative habit can cause her to appear foolish, as when a black dog rolls her in her state of abstraction into a ditch, it is also evidence of her contemplative capacity that sustains her dignity. Her eyesight may be bad, but her memory holds an image of her origin, her path and her goal.

The red rag she wears on her head, then, is, in one perspective, her tiara, signifying her sovereignty over the creatures in her domain. Like a queen, she issues commands and expects obeisance: "Please, missy, will you lace up my shoe?" she says to a city lady whose arms are filled with Christmas packages. In her relations with others, Phoenix's words and instructions are paradigmatic; she is a surprising, lovely lady, imposing heroic tasks, redistributing wealth, and creating manners. Her creativity is a result of her purposeful love and her ability, after long experience, to read people and know what she can expect from them. Although she cannot read letters, she is adept at reading signs in the books of nature and history.

When Phoenix arrives at the doctor's office to obtain the medicine, she reports with a "fixed and ceremonial stiffness," "Here I be." Nearing her journey's end, however, like a quester knight she faces a last crucial test. She must answer a question put to her, but to her consternation it is not the question she expected. The attendant asks her, "What's your name? We must have your history, you know. Have you been here before? What seems to be the trouble with you?" All observers of Phoenix, as perhaps the reader during the early stages of her journey, assume a self-serving motive for her actions. The questions of the woman behind the desk, reiterating categorical "you's," catch Phoenix off-guard since she is not in the habit of self-concern. For a moment, as she is encouraged to consider her own troubles instead of those of her grandson, she loses her sense of mission and withdraws into rigid self-preoccupation.

Fortunately, however, a more experienced nurse asks the question, perhaps the only question, that can stir Phoenix from her paralysis: "He isn't dead, is he?" It is her quick emotion responding to the threat in this question that brings forth the meaning hidden previously in her pendulum-like walk and in the "yellow burning" beneath her dark skin. As "a flame of comprehension" flickers across her face, the burning reveals itself to be the old woman's love, now insisting on her grandson's life for all time. "He going to last," she assures all who have ears to hear her voluble recollection of her task. Her unique heroism, this scene makes clear, is in her ability to remember, against odds, the purpose which keeps her true to her path. That it is a path worn by repetition is insignificant in light of the beginning and the end Phoenix remembers for it.

The plot of "A Worn Path," analysis has shown, is not constructed according to the conventional short story model in which an ascending action builds tension, rising climactically to a peripeteia or reversal, followed by a denouement or untying. From the start of Welty's story there is little mystery about Phoenix's eventual success on her journey; a visible constancy in the woman convinces that she will succeed. For the reader, it is her goal that is the mystery until near the story's end—a mystery which probes and examines the reader's own ability to discern, while accompanying Phoenix, the habit of love that impels her mission.

To test the reader, Welty has planted several obstacles to recognition, such as the stereotypical features of Phoenix, common prejudices represented in the hunter and the medical attendant, and Phoenix's amnesia almost making her appear, at times, a confused and foolish old woman. As it turns out, however, while Phoenix remains steadfast in her purpose, the reader of Welty's story is made to experience, at a certain moment of the action, a revaluation of interpretive assumptions and mental habits that may have contributed to misreading. Phoenix's constancy in her role, her indefatigable charity of purpose, inspires in the reader a change of attitude, away from presumption and toward receptivity to new meanings. This kind of reading effect is clearly described by Wolfgang Iser [in "The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach," New Directions in Literary History, 1974]:

The efficacy of a literary text is brought about by the apparent evocation and subsequent negation of the familiar. What at first seemed to be an affirmation of our assumptions leads to our own rejection of them, thus tending to prepare us for a re-orientation. And it is only when we have outstripped our preconceptions and left the sheller of the familiar that we are in a position to gather new experiences. As the literary text involves the reader in the formation of illusion and the simultaneous formation of the means whereby the illusion is punctured, reading reflects the process by which we gain experience.

Iser's phenomenology of reading describes an experience like the action of interpreting Biblical typology (and perhaps reveals the extent to which interpretive procedures borrowed from Biblical exegesis remain a key element in the reading of Western literature): past events first understood under the aspect of law are revisioned, in the illumination of grace, as prefigurations of present events themselves prefiguring a more perfect fulfillment yet to be enjoyed. That Phoenix displays and inspires a faith that reads created signs as prophecy of a divine intention in the world coheres, I believe, with the essentially Christian vision expressed throughout Welty's fiction.

The story of Phoenix does not end, however, at her journey's end, since there is a special reward for her constancy and her readiness to make good use of time. The nickel she wins from the medical attendant is only the profane token of her reward; its sacred element, reminding us of the profounder meaning of the Christmas event whose celebration nears, comes as a gift to her spirit:

Then she gave a tap with her cane on the floor.

"This is what come to me to do," she said. "I going to the store and buy my child a little windmill they sells, made out of paper. He going to find it hard to believe there such a thing in the world. I'll march myself back where he waiting, holding it straight up in this hand."

The gift Phoenix imagines in her responsiveness to a providential prompting in time will be perfect for the child, who is confined to bed with a throat injury that vexes his breathing. If the "little windmill" will not provide literal breeze to help the child's respiration, the windmill's bright revolutions will provide the child a small share in the big turning world and a child's satisfaction in its life. It will be a reflection of that good proportionality between need and provision so clear in the life Phoenix makes for herself.

The windmill, of course, repeats the motif of temporal revolution that structures this story. The journey of Phoenix, which seems to be coextensive with a larger arc of time from creation to resurrection, suggests the circularity of nature, as did the earlier comparison of her to a grandfather clock. Phoenix persists in her temporal journey because she has faith that natural processes disclose a spiritual truth. Strangely, in accepting the limitations of her physical place and time she gains in her imagination a world whose ultimate coordinates are love and eternity. Small as her world may appear, she finds it sufficiently large for her complete enactment of human responsibility.

David Robinson (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1766

SOURCE: "A Nickel and Dime Matter: Teaching Eudora Welty's 'A Worn Path'," in Notes on Mississippi Writers, Vol. XIX, No. 1, 1987, pp. 23-7.

[In the following essay, Robinson focuses on a particular scene in "A Worn Path" that is open to a variety of interpretations and evaluates the plausibility of each.]

Since I believe writing and reading are allied skills, I like to give essay assignments that involve careful reading. One of my most successful assignments concerns the nickel episode of Eudora Welty's story "A Worn Path," which is included in many literature textbooks. The passage is an excellent test of a student's ability to see how facts can be fitted into different interpretive patterns, though some of the patterns accommodate more of the facts than others do.

The central character, Phoenix Jackson, is an old black woman on her way to Natchez at Christmas time. We know that she is poor, feeble, and nearsighted; nonetheless she is willing to face a number of obstacles—animals, a barbed-wire fence, a narrow log traversing a stream—for her mission, which is not revealed until the end of the story. The title, as well as clues throughout, suggests that her action has taken place many times before, and we finally learn that Phoenix regularly takes the "worn path" to bring back medicine for her grandson, who has swallowed lye and is evidently bedridden. The nurse who gives her the medicine asks about the child; Phoenix assures her that he is still alive, and receiving a nickel in addition to the medicine, she leaves for her home.

The passage central to my assignment appears about twothirds of the way through the story. Momentarily distracted by a large and frightening black dog, Phoenix falls into a ditch and is unable to get up. Luckily a white hunter comes by shortly thereafter, and lifts her out. He asks where she lives; when she tells him, and mentions her destination, he replies that it is too far for her to go. She is adamant about her mission, saying, "I bound to go to town, mister. . . . The time come round"; he laughs and says, "I know you old colored people! Wouldn't miss going to town to see Santa Claus!" She sees a nickel fall from the hunter's pocket, and calls his attention to the black dog that has troubled her. While the hunter is chasing the dog away, she carefully picks up the nickel and puts it in her apron pocket. The hunter returns and points his gun at her, asking if she is scared by it. She answers, "No, sir, I seen plenty go off closer by, in my day, and for less than what I done." He smiles, shoulders the gun, and remarks, "[Y]ou must be a hundred years old, and scared of nothing. I'd give you a dime if I had any money with me. But you take my advice and stay home, and nothing will happen to you." Phoenix tells him that she intends to continue her journey, and they part.

This scene is the climax of the story. Whereas up to this point Phoenix has faced physical, external obstacles, her situation here involves moral choice, as she well knows ("God watching me the whole time. I come to stealing"). The sympathy we have felt for her so far is now qualified by our sense of her wrongdoing, though we discover at the end of the story that she intends to use this money, as well as the nickel she takes from the nurse, to buy her grandson a paper windmill as a present. One critic has accused the story of sentimentality [Robert Towers, "Mississippi Myths," New York Review of Books, No. 24, Dec. 1980], and certainly Welty's decision to write about a poor old black woman in the South risks bathos. But this scene refutes such a judgment. In a truly sentimental tale, Phoenix would be a figure of pure goodness who would either refuse the temptation or, having taken the coin, experience remorse; she might tell the hunter that he had dropped the nickel.

The theft itself is the important issue in the scene; a number of critics [such as Alfred Appel in A Season of Dreams, 1965] have discussed its place in the story's theme of charity. However, the issue my students write about is this: does the hunter know Phoenix has stolen the nickel, and if so, how much does he know?

When I first read the story, I was sure that he knew nothing about the theft; subsequent readings, and a number of papers by my students, have made me less sure. According to one interpretation, the entire episode is a charade performed by the hunter. One student commented, "The white man sees an opportunity for Phoenix to pick up his coin, so he gets his dog and chases after the black dog. The hunter gave Phoenix enough time to see if she was going to pick the money up and keep it for herself or return it to him." Some students argue that he does not wish to insult her by offering the money out-right. Certainly Welty's description of the dropping nickel is neutral enough to permit such a reading. The hunter's action would of course fit into the charity theme, and would suggest the intricacy of relations between the races. Attractive as this view is, though, objections are easy to find. For one thing, it seems odd to assume that his motive is to preserve her dignity, if she is going to feel as though she is stealing the money. Second, the passage about the gun becomes inexplicable. Why would he point the gun at her if he wishes to conceal his knowledge?

A reading that more students offer is that he is unaware at first that he has dropped the money, but sees her pick it up. Welty says nothing about what he sees while he is chasing the black dog. In this case the gun passage becomes quite clear: he points the gun at her to see if she will confess, but she does not flinch. A student wrote, "He should have known when Phoenix said, 'No, sir, I seen plenty go off closer by, in my day, and for less than what I done.'" Another student concluded, "He lets her keep the nickel because he admires her age and fearlessness." This interpretation is better than the previous one, since it accounts for more of the facts, while still focusing on the charity theme. (The hunter's compassion vies with his annoyance at her theft, and the former wins out.) The one difficulty with this reading is his next-to-last sentence: "I'd give you a dime if I had any money with me." This is the only explicit reference to money in the entire dialogue. Such a statement is incongruous if he knows she already has the nickel. To make the statement fit this reading, one must assume either that he means "if I had more money" or that he is being ironic. The former is an unlikely meaning for such an apparently direct remark; the latter is an assumption about his character which needs examining.

The sentence is less troublesome if one assumes that it means exactly what it appears to: that he doesn't know that he had any money with him. Some students doubt his good nature: "I think that if the hunter had known he would not have been as kind to her," one commented. Certainly it is a common experience for one to forget a small coin in a pocket, or for such a coin to fall through a hole. If this is what has happened, a different reading becomes possible, or even necessary, because we need a new explanation for the gun passage. Why would the hunter point the gun at her if he does not suspect her of the theft?

An answer to this must begin with consideration of an earlier exchange. After he has lifted Phoenix out of the ditch and asked her destination, the hunter says, "I know you old colored people! Wouldn't miss going to town to see Santa Claus!" We do not know at this point that Phoenix's object is to get medicine for her grandson, but the hunter's remark is nonetheless condescending—tactless even if he's only teasing. This is another reason to think he is incapable of the benevolent charade the first interpretation assumes. He means well, as his helping her out of the ditch indicates, but he is not very sensitive to her feelings. in this light we can reconsider the gun episode. A student offered this interpretation: "When the hunter had the gun pointed at the old woman, it was another of his careless pranks. He wasn't trying to scare her; he was teasing with her just as he had teased with her from the beginning of the encounter. If he had been serious about pointing the gun at the woman as a threat, he wouldn't have so soon given up the prank." If this is the case, he has been completely taken in by her misdirection of his attention, and his remark about her purpose in going to Natchez, based upon a stereotype of black people as simple and childlike, has redounded upon him: he is the one who isn't very bright. (Phoenix may even be teasing him when she says, "for less than what I done," knowing he won't understand.) The comment about the dime is further irony on Welty's part, since the hunter is unaware that he has given Phoenix some money already. The whole incident may then show Phoenix as using the man's prejudice to her advantage—exacting a fine, so to speak—and it allows us to assent to the theft. Like the other two interpretations, this assumes Welty is commenting subtly on race relations, but the position of superiority is now Phoenix's rather than the hunter's. The drawback to this reading, however, is that it may put more emphasis on the hunter's words than they will bear.

Other critics have interpreted this scene as evidence of Phoenix's refusal to be patronized, or of the hunter's prejudice, but they have not sufficiently analyzed Welty's ingenuity in the whole scene [See Appel, and Grant Moss, Jr., "'A Worn Path' Retrod," College Language Association Journal, Vol. 15, December, 1971]. The entire complicated situation is presented in a few lines of dialogue and some descriptive passages. The scene is thus useful for showing students how a great short-story writer can create a very rich episode with a minimum of words.

Nancy K. Butterworth (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3421

SOURCE: "From Civil War to Civil Rights: Race Relations in Welty's 'A Worn Path'," in Eudora Welty: Eye of the Storyteller, edited by Dawn Trouard, The Kent State University Press, 1989, pp. 165-72.

[In the following essay, Butterworth argues that "recent revisionist criticism . . . frequently falsifies Welty's portrayals of black-white relations in earlier eras. " Butterworth emphasizes the ambiguity that characterizes Welty's treatment of racial themes.]

Since such seminal studies as Robert Penn Warren's "The Love and Separateness in Miss Welty" and Harry Morris's "Eudora Welty's Use of Mythology," it has become traditional to interpret Welty's characters in terms of mythological and cultural archetypes. Welty's black characters frequently have evoked such parallels. In addition to the obvious reference to the Egyptian resurrection myth implied by her name, Phoenix Jackson in "A Worn Path" has been compared to the pagan fertility figures Kore, Demeter, and Persephone, Osiris, Attis, and Adonis, as well as Theseus and Aeneas; knight questers such as the Red Cross Knight and Don Quixote; Bunyan's Christian, a Magus, and Christ. Little Lee Roy in "Keela, The Outcast Indian Maiden" has been likened to the archetypal scapegoat Le Roi Mehaigné, the maimed Fisher King, the albatross in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and American Negro folk tricksters such as Brer Rabbit. Powerhouse, more simplistically, has been described as "a virtual Negro Paul Bunyan."

Although such "superimpositions" of external ideas, as Morris terms them, always risk distorting the text, a majority of these mythological and symbolic readings are valid because they add resonances that enrich our understanding of the characters' roles. Welty's own comments on her use of name symbolism and the influence of remembered fairy tales and myths further support such interpretations. Commentaries on her black characters, however, sometimes obfuscate more than they reveal. One obvious reason is our sensitivity to the race issue, which has made it tempting to oversimplify the narrative events to fit our own conceptions of history and how the races ought to have behaved.

Recent revisionist criticism, in particular, frequently falsifies Welty's portrayals of black-white relations in earlier eras. For example, John Hardy's "Eudora Welty's Negroes," in The Image of the Negro in American Literature, is, paradoxically, both sentimental and satirical. Although his attitude is somewhat inconsistent, Hardy views Phoenix as "a saint":

One of those who walks always in the eye of God, on whom He has set His sign, whether ordinary men are prepared to see it or not. For we realize finally that she has done nothing for herself, for her own advantage, either psychological or material. Just because sanctity is never self-regarding, she must see herself as a sinner. But in the ultimate perspective she is, by virtue of her sanctity, exempt from the usual requirements of economic and social morality.

Conversely, he argues that those who fail to see her as such are the whites, and particularly the white women. He concludes that "There is nowhere in modern literature a more scathing indictment of the fool's pride of the white man in the superiority of his civilization, of his fool's confidence in the virtue of the 'soothing medicine' he offers to heal the hurts of that 'stubborn case,' black mankind." John R. Cooley, in "Blacks as Primitives in Eudora Welty's Fiction," accuses Welty of failing to "develop her racial portraits with sufficient sensitivity or depth" and criticizes her for creating a primitive idyll in "A Worn Path," making it "difficult to cut through the reverence and romance which cloud the story, in order to see the babe as a pathetic image of life caught in the stranglehold of white civilization." He cynically questions whether Welty intended the story as a myth of the phoenix perishing in its own ashes.

Such polemical demythologizings conflict with Welty's persistent refusal to use fiction as a platform, particularly for political or sociological issues, as well as her downplaying and even disavowal of racial implications in her stories. Even in "Keela, The Outcast Indian Maiden," "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" and "The Demonstrators," which treat racial interactions directly, she eschews authorial statement or facile solutions or dichotomies. Thus, although we condemn his act, we are brought to understand the mundane motives for a lower-class white's murder of a black civil rights worker in "Where Is the Voice Coming From?"; the guilt-ridden Steve and cynical civil rights worker in "Keela" and "The Demonstrators," respectively, are portrayed as ethically equivocal; and even such white characters as Max and Dr. Strickland, who attempt to mediate between the races and ameliorate oppression and illness, remain largely ineffectual. The blacks, too, range from virtuous victims to perpetrators of wanton violence, but most of them are merely traditional family members coping with tragedy as best they can. One of Welty's greatest achievements as a writer is that she refuses to rewrite history but rather presents individualized conflicts and tensions, in all of their disturbing ambiguity.

Although there have been some balanced commentaries on the race relations in "A Worn Path"—in particular, Elmo Howell's "Eudora Welty's Negroes: A Note on 'A Worn Path'"—one aspect of the story that has not been adequately explored is the portrayal of Phoenix Jackson as an almost allegorical representation of black people's traits and behaviors from slave times to the story's present. Alfred Appel, Jr., has suggested such a reading when he describes the story as "an effort at telescoping the history of the Negro woman," but he doesn't develop it.

The most compelling reason for seeing Phoenix as an avatar of her race is her almost mythic age. When Phoenix asks the nurse to forgive her momentary senility, she explains, "I never did go to school, I was too old at the Surrender." If we assume that Phoenix was eighteen or more at Emancipation and posit the present action of the story to be around 1940, when it was written, she would be approximately 100 years old. Further corroboration for her age is afforded by her boast when dancing with the scarecrow, "I the oldest people I ever know"; the hunter also marvels that she "must be a hundred years old." This extreme age serves a symbolic function of allowing her personally to have spanned the entire history of the black people from antebellum days to those just prior to the civil rights movement.

Such an interpretation requires considerable caution so as not to reduce the story to mere allegory. It is essential to emphasize—as Stella Brookes does concerning Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus—that Phoenix is not a stereotypical or stock black character but a real human portrait with a distinctive personality. In interviews and essays, Welty has explained the key image that suggested the story to her imagination:

One day I saw a solitary old woman like Phoenix. She was walking; I saw her in the middle distance, in a winter country landscape, and watched her slowly make her way across my line of vision. That sight of her made me write the story. I invented an errand for her, but that only seemed a living part of the figure she was herself: what errand other than for someone else could be making her go?

She conflated this experience with another on the Old Canton Road when an elderly black woman stopped to talk with her; the woman's remark, "I was too old at the Surrender," Welty tells us, "was indelible in my mind." The nexus of Phoenix's character for Welty seems to have been her sense of urgency, her "desperate need" to reach her goal. She notes that Phoenix's "going was the first thing, her persisting in the landscape was the real thing. . . . The real dramatic force of a story depends on the strength of the emotion that has set it going. . . . What gives any such content to 'A Worn Path' is not its circumstances but its subject: the deep-grained habit of love."

Phoenix particularizes these attributes of persistence and enduring love through her own distinct set of decorums and devotions, such as wearing tied shoes into town and her somewhat dubious adherence to the eighth commandment (although in her own estimation she "stoops" when she retrieves a dropped coin, she does not in conning a few more pennies and accepting the "charity" medicine for her grandson). Phoenix's personality also comprises a complicated mixture of shrewdness—"Five pennies is a nickel"—and childlike unself-consciousness—shown when she talks aloud to herself and warns all of the "foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons, and wild animals" to keep out of her way. Her composite of character traits is somewhat like conflating Ida M'Toy with the bird women in "A Pageant of Birds." This complexity, along with her distinctive voice and humor ("Old woman,' she said to herself, 'that black dog come up out of the weeds to stall you off, and now there he sitting on his fine tail, smiling at you'"), keep Phoenix from falling into mere quaintness or caricature.

Phoenix's individuality, though, does not preclude another, simultaneous, view of her as a symbolic representative of her race. Such an interpretation helps to elucidate otherwise confusing statements or situations in the surface narrative. For example, one of the more cryptic passages in Welty's fiction occurs when Phoenix walks "past cabins silver with weather, with the doors and windows boarded shut, all like old women under a spell sitting there," and she says, "'I walking in their sleep,' . . . nodding her head vigorously." Her strong identification with these "women" (the white woman in town who ties her shoes is termed a "lady") suggests that they are the matriarchs of her race whose dreams she views herself as proudly carrying on. Indeed, in her own almost trancelike state, she seems to gain strength from their vicarious vision of her persisting in the landscape while they doze.

The content of Phoenix's dream becomes clearer at the conclusion of the story when she sees the gold-framed document (presumably a diploma) nailed up on the clinic wall, and the narrator asserts that it "matched the dream that hung up in her head." On the surface level, the document verifies that she has reached her specific dream or goal of obtaining the medicine ('"Here I be,' she said"), though she ironically has a memory lapse about her mission immediately afterward. On a deeper level, the diploma also seems to represent her respect for education, which is reiterated later in the scene. Wonderful pathos is evoked by the formally unschooled Phoenix wishing education for herself, her grandson, and, by implication, her people. This dream also may inform part of her faith that her grandson, though frail in body, will prevail and prosper.

Viewing Phoenix as an emblem of her people also helps to explain the title, "A Worn Path," which seems to imply that others have trod and retrod the same arduous path before her. Echoes of slave times can be heard in her chant as she heads up the hill, "Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far," as well as in the images of confinement and persecution, such as the barbed-wire fence, one-armed black men, and the threatening black dog. These symbolic references could refer specifically to the difficulties encountered by the blacks, as well as more generally to any enslaved or downtrodden people from the times of the early Egyptians and Greeks (from whom her name derives) on through the twentieth century.

Finally, this reading explains a number of Phoenix's encounters with whites, both real and imaginary. On the surface level, the story consists of a simple journey composed of about twelve obstacles—external or internal—which Phoenix must overcome to obtain her goal. These encounters take on deeper meaning when seen as symbolic trials or tests of her faith. Robert Welker suggests this interpretation when he refers to the "visions" which sometimes tempted wayfaring knights so as to divert them from their final purpose. Likewise, Phoenix is tempted at numerous points to forestall her journey, as exemplified by the scene in which she marches across the hollow log, "like a festival figure in some parade," and then hallucinates a little boy bringing her a slice of marble cake which she finds "acceptable."

If taken literally, this vision makes little sense; however, it makes a great deal of sense if we see it as a symbolic role reversal in which Phoenix is tempted to accept the dream—the marble cake—rather than the reality of economic equality. This scene bears much resemblance to the parallel one in town when Phoenix requests the nicesmelling white lady to tie her shoes for her, which Hardy so incorrectly interprets as an "outrageous request," one of "the ways in which southern Negroes have learned to take subtle revenge on the 'superior' race, to exploit, for their own material or psychological advantage, the weakness of white pride." On the simplest level, both scenes involve wish-fulfillment fantasies—one imaginary and the other realized—in which Phoenix probably does gain psychological pleasure from being waited upon by those whom she previously served. However, in neither does she seem vindictive toward the whites; she merely accepts with dignity what she considers her "due." Further, both situations carry a covert danger; for if Phoenix were to remain eating imaginary marble cake or allowing others to care for her, she would not complete her necessary journey.

Phoenix's vulnerability is also made explicit in the scene just prior to the hunter's entrance. Evoking her earlier hallucinations or misperceptions of reality, the setting is imbued with a fairy tale aura: a road which cuts "deep, deep . . . down between high green-colored banks" of the swamp, with live oaks meeting overhead, making it "as dark as a cave." The sleeping alligators and Cerberus-like black dog which suddenly rears up out of the weeds suggest covert dangers and unprovoked violence which catch her unawares: "She was meditating, and not ready, and when he came at her she only hit him a little with her cane. Over she went in the ditch, like a little puff of milkweed." Her inability to help herself is shown by her drifting into a dream of rescue.

Perhaps the most troubling incident in the whole story concerns her encounter with the young white hunter. At first he appears to be sympathetic as he helps her out of the ditch. Yet almost immediately the situation takes on uncomfortable undertones in the reversal of usual youthage decorums when the hunter cheerily condescends to her as "Granny" and swings her through the air like a child. His apparent charity of dropping the nickel is also belied by his later assertion that he would give her a dime, if he had "any money" with him (emphasis added). Finally, the tone darkens with the implications of his hunting bobwhites—both Phoenix and the grandson are linked with frail birds—and his seemingly sadistic act of turning his gun on her.

It is difficult not to condemn the hunter's behavior (Welty herself refers to him as a "really nasty white man"). One way of gaining more perspective on his behavior is to interpret this scene broadly as an allegory of the racial stances of the early twentieth century. All of the hunter's actions can be explained in terms of accepted social behavior of the rural South in the 1930s and 1940s, which would have allowed a young white man—a simple "red neck" hunter—some degree of domineering byplay with the curious old black woman. Welty does not distort the man's realistic responses to Phoenix, much as, two decades later, she similarly refuses to pretty up the depiction of the equivalent lower-class white city dweller who murders a black civil rights worker (Medgar Evers) in "Where Is the Voice Coming From?"

More specifically, each of the characters' actions in this scene symbolically represents a particular stage in the pre-civil rights era treatment of blacks. For example, for an indeterminate time before the hunter's arrival, Phoenix waits patiently, merely dreaming of salvation. At one point she reaches up her hand expectantly, "but nothing reached down and gave her a pull." After the zeal of Reconstruction, which Phoenix missed out on because she was too old to be educated, a period of indifference to blacks' welfare persisted well into the early decades of the twentieth century. When the hunter finally arrives, Phoenix uses her vulnerability, lying flat on her back "like a June-bug waiting to be turned over," to obtain her simple need of being helped out of the ditch. Likewise, when the blacks so desperately required help out of the social, educational, and economic ditch, whites finally reached out a hand to aid them, though only perhaps because they appeared so helpless. The next stage is symbolized by Phoenix's having to grovel on her knees for the nickel, which the hunter avers he does not have. The hunter's threatening act of pointing his gun at her and his false advice—"stay home, and nothing will happen to you"—seem prophetic of southern whites' stance during the mid-fifties when blacks began to demand equal opportunities and dignity. Had Phoenix given in to this temptation to remain passive, she would not have obtained the much-needed medicine. Finally, the hunter fails to comprehend the dire necessity of her mission, mistakenly believing she is merely going to see Santa Claus. He is not, in a last analysis, so much malicious as insensitive.

The final scene at the clinic has also drawn considerable commentary on the failure of charity—in the sense of the Latin caritas or Christian love. Yet to see the white attendant and nurse merely as representing the callous welfare state is simplistic. The attendant, who does not know Phoenix's case, displays a clinical sort of charity, dispensed without care or personalization: "A charity case, I suppose." Yet it is noteworthy that at the end of the story she offers Phoenix a small personal gratuity for Christmas. The nurse does act impatiently when Phoenix lapses into senility, but only after five patient attempts to elicit the needed information regarding the grandson.

This scene focuses two of the most significant motifs of the story: Phoenix's unreserved love for her grandson and her hope for his future. The slightly humorous suspense afforded by her momentary lapse of memory functions to undercut the tendency to sentimentalize a tragic situation. When she finally remembers, Phoenix expresses one of the most powerful definitions of Christian love imaginable: "I not going to forget him again, no, the whole enduring time. I could tell him from all the others in creation." She is also adamant in her faith that, despite his seeming frailty, he is going to survive. The flame, bird, and windmill imagery in the final scene reinforces the virtuous cycle by which she keeps her grandson alive through her persistent care; his need likewise gives her a reason to live. To overlook the real suffering in both their lives is to distort. Yet to interpret this scene cynically, as Cooley does, as the blacks swallowing the lye (lie) of racist condescension and occasional charity—or to view Phoenix as some sort of misguided Don Quixote flapping at imaginary windmills —misses the point that Phoenix, in her slow, plodding, and often interrupted course, has overcome every temptation and obtained her goal.

Thus, the truth of the racial interactions in "A Worn Path" lies somewhere between Hardy's, Cooley's, and Appel's encomiums of the blacks and excoriations of the whites and Howell's almost complete exoneration of both:

There is no conflict between Phoenix and the white world, and there is no hate. . . . The whites who confront Phoenix reflect the usual attitudes of their generation toward the Negro. . . . [T]he charity of the whites, meager as it is, is proffered in kindliness and received as such.

Whereas the former interpretations are too polemical, the latter is perhaps overly sanguine. The story does portray interracial tension and misunderstanding, if not overt conflict. To obtain her meager needs, Phoenix has to remain in her subservient role as requester. Although she avoids the more obvious near-parodic ploys, such as Uncle-Tom obsequiousness or Sambo antics, she does rely—consciously or unconsciously—on her shrewdness, senility, and even minor thievery. The whites also evince at least degrees of insensitivity toward Phoenix, but seemingly more out of callous incomprehension than deliberate cruelty. Finally, however, the mythic aura of the story mitigates the impact of these political issues, allowing the reader to apprehend Phoenix whole, as no single character within the story does.

Elaine Orr (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: '"Unsettling Every Definition of Otherness': Another Reading of Eudora Welty's 'A Worn Path'," in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 57, No. 2, May, 1992, pp. 57-72.

[In the following essay, Orr perceives Welty's implicit examination of the writing process itself in the text of "A Worn Path," and argues that the reader is challenged "both to unlearn and to relearn, that is, to enter the process of creation. " She further notes that "the story plays upon our 'knowledge ' of 'others ' to resist the 'wornness' of old scripts."]

Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path," first published in 1941, is one of her most widely read stories. But to date, it has not received a critical reading that questions the interpretation of Phoenix Jackson offered by the white attendant at the end of the story. Phoenix is "a charity case." Given the story's "thick" rendering of Phoenix and the textual evidence that the attendant is an unreliable interpreter, this absence of different readings is puzzling. We should not fail to notice that Welty's verbose and inventive protagonist is herself immediately silenced when she is so summed up by her "superior." Why?

Through careful attention to the narrative itself—an attention that leads us to deconstruct the authoritative and delimiting perspectives offered by the white characters and to reconstruct an excessive subjectivity emerging among Phoenix, the narrator's voice, and the path—this essay seeks to break the critical silence surrounding this often-read story. My argument is that the text figures the writing process, that much more than a character sketch, "A Worn Path" is a complex analogy of fabulation—of invention, discovery, and subjective expansion. Far from resting on stereotypes, the story plays upon our "knowledge" of "others" to resist the "wornness" of old scripts. Phoenix's traits—her blackness, femaleness, age, and apparent poverty—are riddles told by the author to challenge the reader both to unlearn and to relearn, that is, to enter the process of creation.

A scene from the middle of the story suggests the complex "re-figuring" of Phoenix and her path that the text requires:

Then she gave a little cry and clapped her hands and said, "Git on away from here, dog! Look! Look at that dog!" She laughed as if in admiration. "He ain't scared of nobody. He a big black dog." She whispered, "Sic him!"

"Watch me get rid of that cur," said the man. "Sic him, Pete! Sic him!"

Phoenix heard the dogs fighting, and heard the man running and throwing sticks. She even heard a gunshot. But she was slowly bending forward by that time, further and further forward, the lids stretched down over her eyes, as if she were doing this in her sleep. Her chin was lowered almost to her knees. The yellow palm of her hand came out from the fold of her apron. Her fingers slid down and along the ground under the piece of money with the grace and care they would have in lifting an egg from under a sitting hen. Then she slowly straightened up, she stood erect, and the nickel was in her apron pocket. A bird flew by. Her lips moved "God watching me the whole time. I come to stealing."

In this passage, Phoenix Jackson creates a fictive diversion by improvising upon her knowledge of the white male character she confronts—of his penchant for bravado and of his fictions about her. While he appears the authority (certainly the interrogator), she employs his definitions and rewrites them as riddles, thus deconstructing his privilege and (if we are good enough readers) reconstructing her own subjectivity.

Having (somewhat miraculously, since she is earlier described as nearly blind) spotted a nickel which has fallen "out of the man's pocket onto the ground," she invents a competition between the dogs (his dog and the "big black" stray that surprises her, causing her to fall into a ditch). With the slim thread of her story, Phoenix draws the man off in chase and retrieves his money for herself. This brief but effective fiction within the fiction reveals Phoenix's identity as a self-conscious fabulist (something different from what the hunter thinks she is: a self-forgetful old woman) with a penchant for re-creation (making up stories) rather than resolution.

James Walter has suggested [in Journal of the Short Stories in English, Vol. 7, 1986] that the story's simplicity is misleading and argues that Welty "tests" the reader by requiring "a revaluation of interpretive assumptions and mental habits." I agree, and yet it seems to me that Walter and others have underread the story's complex, even contradictory signs, in particular, the interrelated tracings of race, class, and gender that Welty crisscrosses in Phoenix's journey. Though most of the narrative renders her trek, critics often depend upon the story's penultimate and stereotypical moment—Phoenix's securing of the "soothing medicine"—to provide unity or closure to this "dark" character and typically "feminine" tale.

A representative reading is offered by Ruth M. Vande Kieft [in Eudora Welty, 1962], who writes that "there are no significant barriers to the expressive love of old Phoenix." Comparing her to Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury, Vande Kieft suggests that Phoenix is "a completely and beautifully harmonious person," whose journey is undertaken with a "clear object—her grandson." Similarly, John Hardy has proposed [in Images of the Negro in American Literature, 1966] that Phoenix does "nothing for herself, for her own advantage," and John R. Cooley has interpreted "A Worn Path" [in Ball State University Forum, Vol. 14, 1973] as a primitive idyll that fails its black character in "sensitivity or depth." Vande Kieft's reading appears to overlook the complexities of the story while Hardy and Cooley, in analyzing race and not gender, seek a unified understanding of the story's meaning. Though these critics differ on the question of the story's success (some praise Welty for its harmony and pathos; others criticize its romantic tendency), they appear to agree with Granville Hicks's summary of its plot: in the "simple . . . story, 'A Worn Path,' there is nothing at all except the details of an old Negro woman's journey to the city to get medicine for her grandson."

Other critics have hinted at a more complex reading. Nancy K. Butterworth, for example, [in Eudora Welty: Eye of the Storyteller, 1989] suggests that Phoenix "is not a stereotypical or stock black character," yet her reading supports the "charitable" view of Phoenix that the white community in the text finds acceptable: Phoenix's "purpose" arises out of "unreserved love for her grandson." When she "obtains her goal," it is none other than the goal of self-sacrifice. Robert H. Brinkmeyer's view [in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 20.2, 1988] is more instructive; he views Welty's writing as revealing "an openness to otherness" that is expansive and expanding rather than conclusive. His analysis of Welty's nonfiction prose can be applied to this story, which does not conclude. Contrary to most critics' assumptions, the reader does not, in fact, know where Phoenix is going at the "end" any more than the hunter (or the reader either, for that matter) knows why she is going to town in the "middle." Once we read our own hegemonic tendencies in the white characters' "reasoning" about Phoenix's trip, we realize that the text authorizes no "other" reason for her journey, no reason that makes her "other" and hence decipherable and defined.

We see an example of the text's refusal to authorize universal readings in Welty's elaborate description of Phoenix's scooping up of the coin while the hunter is off after the dogs; here we can read both the erasure of the hunter's signs (his "reason") and the writing of undecidable possibilities. Phoenix and the narrator emerge in this passage as unsettling subjects who steal not only money but stories. If this is a crucial moment in the text, as I am suggesting, we are faced with a subject (Phoenix and the writer's art) always in the making, a subject exceeding the boundaries of our expectations. By metaphorically connecting the hunter with the hen (Phoenix takes his money with "the grace and care [she] would have [used] in lifting an egg from under a sitting hen)," Welty playfully "crisscrosses" genders, subverts white male authority, and suggests her own writerly deftness (hence the need for readerly invention in response). As I have already suggested, Phoenix's theft challenges the framing designation—"charity case"—that many past readings have assumed as the authoritative comment in this story. She takes or makes up what she needs.

Phoenix's diversion of the hunter and her theft of his money illustrate the text's metaphorical challenge to all hegemonic definitions, all unitary readings. In the narrative doubling of a woman writer telling the story of a woman inventing a (devious) story, "A Worn Path" excessively re-presents the "defian[t] . . . act of woman writing" otherwise, creating "a space of contradictions," or "the consciousness of 'something else'" (de Lauretis). In this case, "A Worn Path" surpasses the phallic and supremacist definitions it includes and opens windows to contradiction and paradox.

Even in her own comments about the story, Welty is contradictory, for she implies both that the story is about the path (the process) and that it is about Phoenix's going out for another (the goal). I read the story as tracing Phoenix's marginalized selves in order to celebrate the woman writer's fabular (nonunitary) pleasure, which defies enclosure. Welty herself remarks upon the story in this way:

In the matter of function, old Phoenix's way might even do as a sort of parallel to your way of work if you are a writer of stories. The way to get there is the all-important, all-absorbing problem, and this problem is your reason for undertaking the story. . . . Like Phoenix, . . . you . . . us[e] inventions of your imagination, perhaps helped out by your dreams and bits of good luck.

From misleading the hunter to conjuring up marble cake, Phoenix "help[s herself] out by [her] dreams and bits of good luck." Rather than classify Phoenix "a charity case," a more appropriate response to the story, then, is to "us[e] inventions of [our own] imagination," following the contradictions, the "unclassified" play that the journey affords us in our reading.

Welty begins her narrative with contradictions, insisting from the beginning that we "fill in," invent with her, imagine possibility within paradox. For example, in the first paragraph, Phoenix is described as "old" and "very old"; she is "small" and carries a "small cane" that makes the sound "of a solitary little bird." Yet in naming her protagonist after the mythical phoenix (an ancient Egyptian, hence non-Christian, symbol of kingly cremation and rebirth) and having her appear in December (the time of the Winter Solstice, when according to folk tradition, the Witch Destroyer and Regeneratrix appears, a witch whose "nose is hooked like the beak of a bird"), Welty immediately complicates her own representation. These mythical contradictions are followed by homelier textual ones. For example, Welty describes her protagonist as "neat and tidy," and yet Phoenix walks all the way to town with her shoe untied. Her gait is compared to the balance of a pendulum in a grandfather clock, and she crosses a log with her eyes shut, but she is at critical moments quite "unbalanced." She is nearly blind, as evidenced when she is fooled by the scarecrow, yet she sees a nickel fall from the hunter's pocket (and knows that it is a nickel, not another coin). To herself, she thinks, "I the oldest people I ever know," yet the narrator describes her at one point as "stretching her fingers like a baby." She appears dominated by time, yet she often dreams, and as the windmill at the story's end suggests, is more like the wind, now gusting, now still, than she is inflexible or constant. She is both simple and wise, marginalized within the social fields she traverses and yet mysteriously beyond the boundaries drawn by her social superiors. She is poor, but her face is superior to jewels.

As textual contradiction, Phoenix herself "shake[s] up the . . . communities which do not acknowledge the excluded margins" [Dale M. Bauer, Feminist Dialogics, 1988]. Within the story, her encounters with the hunter and the larger white middle-class community illustrate both her marginality (as female, black, old, and poor) and the unsettling that occurs when her presence challenges that community's "readings" of her. If "it is not a writer's business to tease," it certainly is a writer's business to give us new knowledge of human possibilities, to invent metaphors that complicate "worn" knowledge. In this sense, the "worn path" that must be overcome in this story is not Phoenix's but ours, the worn path of old readings, tried and untrue assumptions.

Audre Lorde describes some of these assumptions when she writes, "Somewhere, on the edge of consciousness, there is .. . a mythical norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows ' .. . is not me.' In america [sic], this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, christian [sic], and financially secure." Along the worn path, it is, of course, the hunter, not Phoenix, who appears as a fit hero for the American adventure. He, the narrator tells us, is "a white man .. . a hunter, a young man, with his dog on a chain" and a gun. As we have already seen, Phoenix is almost shrunken with age and apparently "poor"; her only weapon is a walking stick made from an old umbrella which she waves before her like a wand. In setting up this contrast, Welty's text certainly challenges assumptions about the hero. What readers have missed is the story's thoroughgoing deconstruction of familiar models, even the models we have employed to understand the heroine.

The hunter's authoritative voice is unequivocal, assumes privilege, and conveys a belief in the literal power of his words. When he tells Phoenix to "stay home" so that "nothing will happen to [her]" (indeed!), he seems to expect that his command will literally turn her around. Phoenix's speech, on the other hand, suggests a playful and deviant use of language. Creating riddles and playing with others' fictions about her, she is able to continue on her way despite the hunter. Like the character of the fool, who appears foolish only to the literal-minded, her language "serves to defamiliarize the conventions which have been accepted as 'natural,' as myth" (Bauer). And as John Hardy notes, "[T]he habit of mythologizing the lives of Negroes [sic], .. . is one of the best established and most effective methods that the while man [sic] has devised for denying them full status in his cultural community." Feminist writers have said as much about patriarchal mythologizing of women. Thus, Phoenix's play is seriously aimed, and at a fairly daunting set of canons. If there is purpose in this tale it is not to appease us through mere repetition of myth but to unsettle us through iconoclastic reversals and inventions. Phoenix, who appears simple, may not be; her path, which seems necessarily eclipsed by the hunter's may be of greater magnitude than he can imagine, and her purposes, which he and the nurse neatly categorize, may be far more mysterious and regenerative than are our associations with the traditional hero or heroine.

When the hunter learns that Phoenix is "bound to go to town," he immediately declares it unmanageable for her since the trek is equal to the distance he normally travels. "Why, that's too far," he argues, and then boasts while patting the bag of game he carries: "'When I come out myself, . . . I get something for my trouble'." Phoenix's understanding of his "sport" is signaled when the narrator shows us "a little closed claw. . . . one of the bob-whites, with its beak hooked bitterly to show it was dead." The hunter's "gaming" is not playful but conclusive and, as Butterworth notes, sadistic. The hunter assumes that Phoenix goes out with similar goals when, actually, she goes out not to bring things to a close, but to see what she can make of things, what she can make up. By analogy, Welty's writing does not conclusively frame the charitable heroine. Both writer and character initiate discourse as a form of play. Later, in town, for example, Phoenix approaches a well-to-do woman and asks for help tying her shoe, but no careful reader will believe Phoenix could not tie her own shoes. Rather, she wants to see what her talk will do, just as Welty does.

The hunter's condescension is reflected in past readings (and parodied in the shoe-tying episode) that preclude the possibility of Phoenix's self-conscious and self-interested play with language. Robert L. Phillips, Jr., for example, [in Eudora Welty: Critical Essays, 1979] denies the possibility that Phoenix is aware of the manifold dimensions of language when he writes, "In 'The Worn Path' the rich texture of allusion and symbol is there for the reader and the critic to enjoy." Phoenix, he argues, "is not aware that she is acting out patterns as ancient as the imagination. She knows only what she sees and feels to be important." But why can we not imagine that Phoenix is linguistically skilled? Earlier, facing a "field of dead corn," she whispers to herself, "Through the maze now'," thus playfully exchanging the words maze/maize. Indeed, she appears to illustrate the double consciousness and duplicitous use of language that W. E. B. DuBois postulated for African Americans, developed, he proposed, through their negoliation with white authority. Feminist theorists have similarly pointed to women writers' studied use of "double-talk," a subversive speech appearing to say one thing when really another meaning is intended. Phoenix's playful skill with language allows her to transform herself from "subject into object into subject," a fabular talent that "grounds [her] different relation .. . to consciousness, and to knowing" [Teresa de Lauretis, in Feminist Studies, Vol. 16.1, 1990]. Analogically, she is a figure for Welty's writing, for a subversive feminist knowledge that unravels worn assumptions and weaves new visions, for example, of woman's identity as evolving out of self-interested fabular play rather than self-forgetful abnegation.

Indeed, as Hardy and Butterworth have shown, Welty warns the reader against the obvious (or merely a literal reading) by parodying the all-too-predictable hero and his (self-definition of the quest. One must be young, strong, and male to set out on the hunt, and the guiding maxim is this: one goes out with an eye toward the goal—toward the kill, no less. The gun, which the young hunter soon exhibits, connects the intention of his language with his assured and literal result. Though we may quickly recognize Welty's play at the hunter's expense, previous readings have not recognized Phoenix's (and the narrator's) play at ours. For most readers desire closure and ends; and while some critics have scoffed at the hunter's definition of those ends, others have "swallowed" the "soothing medicine" of feminine self-sacrifice as an appropriate and noble "end" for Phoenix or, if they have rejected the medicine for themselves, have assumed that the writer accepts it.

Like the hunter, readers do not know Phoenix's "purpose" yet and have been reading this outing as more or less plotless, a "simple" story lacking sufficient motivation and purpose. We are trained as the hunter is toward greater expediency than Phoenix seems capable of. The hunter jumps to a second conclusion, since he finds a motivation that he can understand so necessary: "'I know you old colored people!'" he remarks, '"Wouldn't miss going to town to see Santa Claus'."

Actually, like Christmas Jenny in Mary Wilkins Freeman's story by that name, Phoenix is closer to being Santa Claus (in her mysterious capacities) than she is likely to be his devotee. She is a blend of biblical and mythical figures, all feminized through their association with Phoenix herself, while most of her antagonists are masculinized (the dead trees, the snake, the scarecrow, the dog). Clearly, she is the phoenix, who rises from her own ashes (thus one who is ageless and self-inventing), but also a female Aaron (where her cane/staff appears to be coming to life), a wiser Eve (when she hopes to avoid the snake "coming around that tree"), and the sibyl (in her frequent "dreams" and meditations, some of which are not revealed to us). The succession of mythic female characters suggests the story's less-worn path, its bringing of the traditionally marginal to center and simultaneous decentering of the reader through the character of Phoenix. She is a subject we cannot "pen" down according to any "other" definition or stereotype, even, as we will see, according to the type of "the good mother."

In his reinscription of Phoenix according to the limits of his imagination—as quaint, childlike, and needy—the hunter is the unimaginative reader who reads not to entertain something new but to confirm what he already knows. Phoenix appears aware of his limitations when she responds to his questions about her age and origin. "'You can't even see it from here'," she replies to the question about where she lives. And when she answers "'No telling'" to his question about her age, she plays both with her own deviance (she will not tell him) and with the possibility that she is ageless, that she is mysteriously outside of or beyond his measured time. Indeed, the narrative seems to suggest that Phoenix's context is not small at all; it only appears that way to the hunter, who is limited by his self-referential language. Her origins as well as her destination are "beyond" the hunter, perhaps literally, certainly figuratively and symbolically. Like Pilate in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, Phoenix is presented as one who cannot be understood by those who imagine that they already know her. The "golden color" that runs underneath her skin and her "eyes . . . blue with age" are signs of her mystery, pointed to by Welty but not at all "read" by those whom Phoenix encounters on her way.

When Phoenix creates the fictive diversion of the dogs, the hunter's "knowledge," not merely his physical prowess, is questioned. This (black female) character's detouring of the hunter breaks the frame of the (white) masculine myth and reveals it as a literary convention. Indeed, as Phoenix negotiates her way around the hunter and his commanding language/commanding gun/authoritative tradition, she lifts her skirts and walks out of his picture into another space, "a space of contradictions, in the here and now, that need[s] to be affirmed but not resolved" (de Lauretis). Tracing out the process of writing with the extended metaphor of Phoenix's journey, Welty affirms a knowledge of uncertainties, a revisionist practice of looking at the "other" in order to rename and expand the self, not to rename and de-limit those "others."

But Phoenix has not yet escaped all "framing." When she arrives in town and enters the doctor's office, we are finally given a "reason" for this trek. Phoenix is a grandmother whose sick grandson needs the "soothing medicine" for which she has come. As the nurse remarks: "Oh, that's just old Aunt Phoenix, . . . She doesn't come for herself—she has a little grandson. She makes these trips just as regular as clockwork. She lives away back off the Old Natchez Trace'" (italics mine). The nurse, of course, is another reader/interpreter like the hunter, but now Welty sharpens the critique of hegemonic definition (clearly inscribed in Phoenix's meeting with the hunter) by revealing the uncharitable authority of white women in relation to Phoenix. Hardy correctly calls the scene a "scathing indictment of the fool's pride of the white man [sic] in the superiority of his civilization."

Are we to believe that Phoenix does not come for herself? In The Eye of the Story, Welty's only definitive answer to the question of whether the boy is dead is this: "Phoenix is alive." Thus while Phoenix's encounter with the hunter initiates the story's critique of the well-worn path of racist and masculinist definitions, the encounter with the "professional" women in the office sharpens the review by dramatizing the racism and classism that inform the white women's "charitable" understanding of Phoenix. Like the racism and sexism of the hunter, the classism and racism of the white women are dead languages (the ashes) in Welty's text, played upon by Phoenix to call forth a new alphabet, a new text of emerging subjectivity, of coming to life through invention.

The white women's knowledge depends on and subsumes some "other," someone who "I am not." It deadens relationship through dependence on static categories. Like the hunter, these women read Phoenix stereotypically, never imagining that she might deviate from their prescription. Profiting from their alliance with the white male doctor, they have escaped certain material oppressions of patriarchy (they will, for example, be rewarded materially for their work outside the domestic sphere), yet they expect Phoenix to act humbly and always out of love. She is (their) servant. Or as Bell Hooks remarks [in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, 1984] in her description of white feminists, "they are the 'hosts,' [we/black women/Phoenix are the] guests," in other words, the other, the foreigner.

The acceptable motivation of a black woman's maternal love—a part of the mythology of the "superhuman black woman"—might be a reason Phoenix comes to town but it is not her defining reason. Said differently, Phoenix does not come to be herself merely through bearing the medicine but through her fabulous thought. She is primarily the woman who journeys and thinks rather than the woman who bears. She lives (as a text does) through her constant telling and retelling. Welty's narrative represents these "feminine" contradictions, though most readers resist reading them, concluding (unitarily) that this good woman's story can finally be understood as really being about maternal charity.

But as soon as the nurse provides herself (us?) with an "acceptable" reason for Phoenix's journey, Welty erases it. Phoenix forgets why she came: 'The old woman sat down, bolt upright in the chair. . . . as if she were in armour." The static and constricting definition given to Phoenix is imagistically conveyed in her body; as a charity case, she loses all agency, all fluidity. She is no longer the graceful writer of her path. Perhaps her forgetfulness is simply old age (but can we ignore the name Phoenix even in the most literal of readings), or perhaps the boy is dead and she is momentarily ashamed for having troubled the nurse (again to read this way, we must forget the numerous mythical allusions in the text and ignore the playful and resonant language Phoenix has spoken throughout the story). More likely, the erasure is not forgetfulness at all but self-consciousness—Phoenix's self-conscious resistance to the erasure of her subjectivity and Welty's self-conscious refusal to author-ize her character (her own writing) as "other."

Like the hunter, the attendant "reads" Phoenix quickly: "'A charity case,'" she "supposes." Her immediate sizing up reveals stereotypical attitudes toward Phoenix's race and class. On the one hand, the attendant reads her blackness as meaning she requires charity (thus blackness and poverty are conflated). On the other hand, readers have "supposed" that the statement is the key to understanding the story: Phoenix's story is about charity, about her (grand) motherly love for a child. The white women's overdetermined "reading" of Phoenix reveals their actual complicity in the simple story that makes every woman Mary or Eve. But Phoenix's response again casts doubt on such simple readings. Here she employs silence rather than narrative invention to rebel against white and male "author-izations" of her journey as (m)other.

Phoenix refuses to answer in the way that the attendant requires. Even when the nurse, who "knows" Phoenix, enters the story, Phoenix does not comply with the script the nurse supplies. She is still silent, though finally she does "remember" her purpose. Still, the slippage between the nurse's prescriptive view and Phoenix's deviant silence provokes us into thought. Such fictional play reevaluates the traditional procedures of communication—here between a white woman and a black woman, where the black participant is expected simply to say "yes"—and releases us from established patterns. Phoenix provokes the nurse, who warns that she "mustn't take up our time this way," actually pleading that Phoenix stay with the frayed script of black/white (also self/other) relations with which both are familiar. But Welty erases that old "dialogue" and shows that it is indeed the ever-emerging path that matters, that Phoenix's fabulous journey beyond the familiar and outside the boundaries of our previous knowledge is her reason for coming. "The deep-grained habit of love" is Phoenix's habit of self-invention and Welty's writerly habit of empathy, of extending her knowledge not by defining the "other" but by redefining herself in relation to others, what Vande Kieft correctly refers to as Welty's "power to 'slip into' people whose lives and social and economic situations differed greatly from her own."

Clearly a thoughtful readerly pause will make more of Phoenix's pause than mere forgetfulness. Middle- and upper-class white women have often escaped the requirements of "pure" motherly love in part by hiring black women to mother their children and clean their houses. The pause in Welty's text exposes the white women's assumptions as their own fictional construction. Their identifying statements—statements identifying Phoenix, that is—are not Phoenix's, and in her pause, she (along with Eudora Welty) erases them. In the absence of identification (foreigners and "others" must be identified), readers may bridge the gap by holding on tenaciously to their need for Phoenix's charity (for her being a charity case) or they can imaginatively reconstruct the subjectivity of the fabulator that Phoenix has played with throughout her journey. Such a reconstruction offers a fruitful opportunity for speaking the contradictory subject that emerges when we read Welty and Phoenix Jackson as (metaphorical) writer(s). This move, initiated by Welty and expansively rewritten in our reading may allow us to do what Valerie Smith says we must: "develop a mode of selfevaluation, and sustain a dialogue with those [black and white feminists] involved in related enterprises." Welty expands her writing self through fabulating this African American woman. The writer and her subject are both related and distinct. As the '"Inappropriate/d Other,'" the metaphorical subject arising between Phoenix and Welty "moves about, with always at least two/four gestures: that of affirming 'I am like you' while pointing insistently to the difference; and that of reminding 'I am different' while unsettling every definition of otherness arrived at" (Trinh T. Minha-ha, qtd. in de Lauretis).

When Phoenix does finally answer the nurse, she actually overanswers in a self-effacing response that is another parody of readers' unimaginative expectations. Begging forgiveness, Phoenix offers this life history: "'I never did go to school, I was too old at the Surrender." Then she adds, "I'm an old woman without an education. It was my memory fail me'." Alluding to the Civil War, Phoenix fulfills the image the nurse has of her. She promises not to forget again (that she should be subservient and/or that she has come for the boy).

Welty's overwriting of this passage, coming just on the heels of the underwriting of the narrative pause, again disconcerts our reading. Having created a spirited and inspiriting character, she belittles her beyond recognition. But the writing here merely mimics the white women's language. We have actually left Phoenix's text (her crisscrossing, difficult, interesting path) and embarked upon the nurse's sterile path of self-denunciation, a path she marks for Phoenix-as-(m)other, not for herself.

We are given a final sign of Phoenix's refusal to stay in her place, however, when, after gaining the nurse's approval, she cunningly pockets another nickel before leaving. She reminds us of her encounter with the hunter and of her subversion of his authority. Though she plans to buy a windmill for the boy, there is no evidence that she plans to go "straight" home. Instead, the quixotic image clearly suggests the fabulous subject Welty has been tracing. Through Phoenix's play, which crosses the established field of power between whites and blacks, between those upstairs and those down (Welty's clear imaging of the race/class hierarchy), the character has re-created herself linguistically (the phoenix!). We may assume she is going home, but there is no evidence in the story. Instead, I suggest she will move as she has throughout, beyond us, always re-marking the space of contradiction, the open ending.

The story's parodic or "non-sensical" (because inconclusive) character interrogates our attempt to find an allencompassing truth in fiction and in particular our propensity to identify feminine truth as motherly love exclusive of self-interest or African American identity as auxiliary to white ideologies of wealth, conquest, and leisure. By refusing to stay in its place, to abide by any definition of otherness, the story offers no conclusions, only complications and deferrals. Not only the image of the hunter but that of the (black) mother is momentarily disestablished. What is left is the path/tracing and Phoenix/Welty upon it. Zigzagging in our reading of her, Phoenix recalls the goddess whose symbol is the zigzag, the image of water [Marija Alseikaite Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess, 1988]. Her play with many selves—adventurer, fool, mother, inventor, comic—is like Welty's expansive writing which will not allow us to conclude but moves back and forth upon itself. When Phoenix refuses to stay in (her) place, defying the hunter who misreads her and would send her home (to the house) as well as the attendant and nurse who misname her a "charity case" (and thus would send her back to the type of "angel in the house" so familiar to women writers and feminist readers, white and African American alike), Phoenix/Welty generates a story that gets away from us (because we are inclined like those others to underread). If we follow Phoenix's path, however, (that is, Welty's writing), we are able to "see meaning in what previously has been empty space" [Showalter, qtd. in Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, 1979]. Appealing to a feminized past through the character of Phoenix, Welty generates her playful, evasive, stubborn, and fabulous writing selves. Certainly, she is not a "charity case." Crossing boundaries with Phoenix, she does not create a type but shows her process of invention and her determined erasing of those myths which keep all emerging subjects penned in or up.

At last, we can read Phoenix's mothering but now through the defamiliarization brought about by parody which, as Patricia Waugh says [in Metafiction, the Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction, 1984] allows new and more authentic forms of the subject to be released. Phoenix herself crosses self-interest with other interest. When she claims that she will remember the boy "the whole enduring time," she hints at something that past readings have not noticed: that she chooses him, as a fiction perhaps, but nevertheless as willfully desired.

Phoenix's desire to mother as she will rather than according to definition recalls the Goddess Creatrix, the source (of fictions as well as lives). As Marija Gimbutas reminds us, early Goddess Creatrix images were bird-woman hybrids. More than fertility goddesses, these beings were beings of thought, of intellect, as well as of body. Like Phoenix, readers who remember the complexity of this other past, will learn to make their (textual) ways like a mother, by hook or by crook, writing and erasing, always interested and self-conscious, and always tracing the complexities of (self-and other-) love.

James Robert Saunders (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5382

SOURCE: "'A Worn Path': The Eternal Quest of Welty's Phoenix Jackson," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XXV, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 62-73.

[In the following essay, Saunders surveys various critical interpretations of "A Worn Path, " emphasizing the story's ambiguous meaning and exploring its thematic affinities with other works of fiction.]

Of all the ingenious stories written by Eudora Welty over the past half century, it is perhaps "A Worn Path" that is most intriguing in terms of its ability to defy simple explanation. In a relatively early essay entitled "Life for Phoenix" [Sewanee Review, Vol. 71, 1963], Neil Isaacs manages to conclude that "the whole story is suggestive of a religious pilgrimage, while the conclusion implies that the return trip will be like the journey of the Magi, with Phoenix following a star (the marvelous windmill) to bring a gift to the child (medicine, also windmill)." Indeed the tale is in some sense, to use Isaacs' word, "suggestive" of a religious quest. The story begins conspicuously on a cold December morning, and just as quickly we are made aware that there is an old black woman "coming along a path through the pinewoods." We observe her as she negotiates a series of obstacles in that wilderness on her way to Natchez, Mississippi, presumably to pick up some medicine for her grandson who, according to the nurse's calculation near the story's end, had swallowed a certain amount of lye two or three years earlier. Elaborating further on the biblical analysis, Isaacs interprets:

there are references to the Eden story (the ordering of the species, the snake in summer to be avoided), to the parting of the Red Sea (Phoenix walking through the field of corn), to a sequence of temptations, to the River Jordan and the City of Heaven (when Phoenix gets to the river, sees the city shining, and hears the bells ringing; then there is the angel who waits on her, tying her shoes), to the Christ-child in the manger (Phoenix describing her grandson as 'all wrapped up' in 'a little patch quilt . . . like a little bird' with 'a sweet look').

All things considered, Isaacs' analogies are quite astute and provide us with the basis for a most interesting perspective: Phoenix Jackson is involved in that crucial search for meaning in life that is founded on basic Christian principles and designed, upon completion, to provide her with life-giving sustenance. Even if she is, due both to her advancing years and the nature of her difficult mission, about to die by the story's end, it is only so that life might be affirmed through acquisition of the medicine her grandson needs.

Nevertheless, Roland Bartel specifies the story's uncertain ending as indicative of something much more pessimistic. Entitling his brief explication "Life and Death in Eudora Welly's 'A Worn Path,'" [Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 14, 1977] he urges us to "consider seriously the possibility that her grandson is, in fact, dead." Presumably the lye that had been swallowed earlier was fatal, and now Phoenix has become engaged in a self-sacrificing ritual that carries her painfully over hills and through cave-like woods to get the "soothing medicine" that can only serve as a reminder of defeat. Commenting on what might be the significance of her name, Bartel continues, "If her grandson is dead, then the rebirth implied in her name is doubly pathetic: she unwittingly makes the journey to meet her own needs rather than her grandson's, and what begins as a life-sustaining journey seems to end in a journey of death." Bartel argues vehemently for the prospect that Phoenix is just "a feeble old woman whose active imagination rescues her from the harshest aspects of her existence." But by the time she has acquired her medicine, which is the purpose of her mission, she must (as Bartel has deduced) turn her limited sights toward returning home. The story ends with Jackson walking out of the doctor's office, and then "her slow step began on the stairs, going down." Conveyed in that very last line of the story is the sense that Jackson had expended practically all of her energy on the journey and thus might not be able to make it back to her grandson even if he is alive. At one point, on her way to the doctor's office, she is shown lying in the midst of the wilderness flat on her back, unable to rise until a helpful hunter approaches to lend a hand, and yet there was a certain crispness in her response when that hunter had asked what she was doing there. "Lying on my back like a June-bug waiting to be turned over" is what she says, and while a june bug in such a situation is not necessarily doomed, it is B artel's belief that senility is setting in for Jackson and "she has risen from the ashes for the last time."

In arriving at his conclusion Bartel rightfully draws on the Egyptian legend of the phoenix. One would be remiss not to do so in light of the protagonist's first name, However, whereas Bartel is somehow able to see the phoenix as indicative of Phoenix Jackson's ultimate demise, it is more appropriate to remember that the phoenix legend has its origin in an area of the world known as the "cradle of civilization" and also most appropriate to consider that Welty might intend for us to combine the legend with her story to unveil a process that goes on into infinity. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes the phoenix as

a fabulous bird connected with the worship of the sun especially in ancient Egypt and in classical antiquity. It was known to Hesiod, and descriptions of its appearance and behavior occur in ancient literature sporadically, with variations in detail, from Herodotus' account of Egypt onward. The phoenix is said to be as large as an eagle, with brilliant scarlet and gold plumage and a melodious cry. Only one phoenix exists at any time. It is very long-lived; no ancient authority gives it a life span of less than 500 years; some say it lives for 1,461 years (an Egyptian Sothic Period): an extreme estimate is 97,200. As its end approaches the phoenix fashions a nest of aromatic boughs and spices, sets it on fire, and is consumed in the flames. From this pyre miraculously springs a new phoenix.

Besides sharing that amazing bird's name, Phoenix resembles it in other ways. She "was an old Negro woman with her head tied in a red rag." The color of that head apparel cannot be accepted as coincidental; recall the scarlet plumage of the ancient bird. Remember, as well, how that creature from antiquity is able to recreate itself by casting its body into a self-made fire. When asked the gripping question of whether or not her grandson is alive or dead, there has to come "a flicker and then a flame of comprehension" before the author's Phoenix can respond—after what amounts to some sort of mystical conversion—that "he is just the same." The nurse had asked six times about the condition of her grandson before Phoenix was inclined to answer. Perhaps we should accept this as an indication of senility. The protagonist herself subsequently begs forgiveness, explaining, "I never did go to school, I was too old at the Surrender . . . I'm an old woman without an education. It was my memory fail me." We can believe that is the proper explanation or we can wonder, instead, how anyone forgets the purpose of so long and tedious a quest. During that nurse's interrogation, "Phoenix only waited and stared straight ahead, her face very solemn and withdrawn into rigidity" as if bracing herself against the onslaught of suspicion. She apologizes as most any black person of her day would have done in that situation, but she never once denies the nature of her function.

Critic Grant Moss insists [in "'A Worn Path' Retrod," CLA Journal, Vol. 15, 1971] that Welty refused to use black dialect so that she might add "to the universality of her main character and her story as a whole" ("Retrod"). He goes on to say:

It could have easily been an old white woman in the same circumstances as those of old Phoenix who set out that December morning on a journey to town on a mission like that of Old Phoenix. It could have been an old Czechoslovakian, Greek, or German peasant woman, who, in her own country, went across fields, through woods, over a stream, painfully into a village for the same purpose yesterday, or long ago, or ages ago. But it happened to be an old woman whom Miss Welty identifies as a Negro woman.

Certainly, there have been other old women in various times and places who have merited the rendering of a tale so that the world will not forget their vast accomplishments. But to believe that Phoenix Jackson just "happened to be" an old black woman is to ignore an all-too-vital aspect of our nation's history. She, in particular, has been as crucial an element in the development of moral fiber as anything one might imagine.

William Faulkner was aware of this phenomenon, and while he portrayed the effects of a disappearing wilderness, the breakdown of the family, and the haunting shadows of the Civil War, he also left us Dilsey to evaluate. One watches in awe at the overwhelming chaos of The Sound and theFury while she, quite naturally, takes the idiot Compson child "to the bed and drew him down beside her and she held him, rocking back and forth, wiping his drooling mouth upon the hem of her skirt." It is that frightened, whining retarded child of the Compsons who represents what is most pitiable about us, and it is Dilsey who caters to him as though he were the most important. Before accepting this comparison between the two black women (Faulkner's Dilsey and Welty's Phoenix), however, it is apropos to examine what some might call a marked distinction. Benjy is not even Dilsey's child while Phoenix's grandchild has evidently swallowed lye; negligence would seem to be a factor in the latter case. What happened to the grandson's parents? How did he come to be in Jackson's charge? Still, however we might resolve this issue in our minds, whether parental absence is due to fate or the parents' fault, Phoenix is just as prepared to meet the challenge.

There is no need to limit ourselves to Dilsey as we search for adequate comparisons. Margaret Walker's Jubilee is a celebration of this spirit. Based on the life of Walker's maternal great-grandmother, Margaret Duggans Ware Brown, the novel serves to chronicle the life and times of its main character, Vyry, who, like Phoenix and so many others, was born into slavery but given the chance to see her race evolve away from that degrading institution. What makes Vyry different from any other character in that novel is how she is able to be consistent in the retention of humanistic values in spite of how circumstances resulting from the Civil War tear at the hearts of other southern victims until their stability is utterly destroyed. While others flee in the face of the Union surge, Vyry remains behind with the enfeebled Miss Lillian for the simple reason that her former mistress needs her most. Later in the book, as she and her newfound husband search during the bitter Reconstruction era for a home from which they will not be driven, she responds to a young white man who instinctively appeals to her in time of crisis. In that "I reckon I can be a granny in a pinch" chapter, the young man pleads, "Oh lady, help me please, my wife's having a baby, please come in quick," and within a matter of moments we hear Vyry, who had only become a mother recently herself, comforting the stranger's pregnant wife, "Now lie still on your back and I'll hold your knees for you and when you feels the pain again, close your mouth and grit your teeth and bear down hard like you is on the pot." An hour later, that "granny in a pinch" had "cleaned the baby and dressed him, and left the mother, clean and comfortable, ready for sleep." Rejecting the father's offer of payment, that "granny" nevertheless promises to return the next morning to make sure that complications don't occur. She was, in words written by Walker that smack of what might be Welty's theme, "touched with a spiritual fire and permeated with a spiritual wholeness that had been forged in a crucible of suffering." Once again, the Egyptian phoenix comes to mind as Walker adds how her protagonist was

only a living sign and mark of all the best that any human being could hope to become. In her obvious capacity for love, redemptive and forgiving love, she was alive and standing on the highest peaks of her time and human personality . . . unlettered and untutored, she was nevertheless the best true example of the motherhood of her race, an ever present assurance that nothing could destroy a people whose sons had come from her loins.

Such laudatory words serve as a fitting tribute to the humble figure of a woman who inhabits the pages of Walker's novel as well as the texts of other writers who have rendered their interpretations of this special type of character and what her presence means.

For Welty, the character epitomizes three important things. To begin with, Phoenix is a gifted child of nature. "Far out in the country" is the place from which she comes and, as she travels over her path toward the city of Natchez, elements of nature caress her along the way. Struggling on an incline, she remarks to herself, "Something always take a hold of me on this hill—pleads I should stay." It is possible that this "something" is the strain that going uphill poses, but it is more than likely that the very woods are reaching out to one who is their own. Going down the hill, her skirts get caught on a thorny bush; nimble fingers free them time and time again. "It was not possible to allow the dress to tear," our narrator says. Only, we are not really sure if it is nimble fingers that will absolutely not allow it or the thorny bush itself which will not harm the garments of an essential sister. Such a theory is not outlandish considering the author's use of personification to achieve the desired spiritual effect. She transcends a barbed-wire fence, and big "dead trees, like black men with one arm, were standing in the purple stalks of the withered cotton field." Soon after, she thinks back to the previous summer when snakes were in abundance, and she is grateful as she passes through that old cotton and the dead corn that "whispered and shook and was taller than her head." Just as those dead trees—which are indeed only dead in the strictly biological sense—have waved her by with their one-armed communal greeting, the dead corn stalks must rise to guide her through. "Thorns, you doing your appointed work," Phoenix maintained earlier. Those sharp protrusions, harmful as they are to some, have helped this story's traveler to proceed on her precisely ordained course.

Mere human vision would not have been sufficient for the journey. In fact, before traversing a narrow log that had been laid across a creek, Phoenix actually closed her eyes and then "leveling her cane fiercely before her, like a festival figure in some parade, she began to march across." The cane she brandishes has particular significance, for having once been an umbrella that shielded humans from the elements of nature, it now facilitates communion, and in the still air of the winter Phoenix taps this vital instrument upon the frozen earth to produce a sound that is "meditative like the chirping of a solitary little bird." Once she arrives at the log, a bridge that nature has provided, she can "march" across without even looking until she has reached the other side. On she marches through some areas that have no path at all, but she continues "parting her way from side to side with the cane, through the whispering field."

Shortly thereafter, Phoenix takes advantage of a trail that has been left by wagon wheels.

She followed the track, swaying through the quiet bare fields, through the little strings of trees silver in their dead leaves, past cabins silver from weather, with the doors and windows boarded shut, all like old women under a spell sitting there. "I walking in their sleep," she said, nodding her head vigorously.

The going has gotten somewhat easier upon this encountering of places where humankind has been before, but those were also special human beings not so much detached from nature as they were from a surrounding modern world. The "quiet bare fields," "trees silver in their dead leaves," and "cabins silver from weather" are "all like old women under a spell sitting there." "I walking in their sleep," the traveler speaks in curious phraseology that serves to show how her communion carries on.

Other fiction writers have employed this theme. In Alice Walker's The Color Purple, as Celie learns to love herself, she comes to include the air and birds and trees. In fact, we don't know what to think exactly as, after a rather lengthy process of self-actualization, she concludes, "I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed." That she has become in tune with nature is quite evident, but even more intriguing is how she and nature are one and the same. Again, in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon we are witness to a character, Pilate, who is so close to nature that she is apart from others in the world. There were no street lights in her part of town and no electricity or gas in her quaint home. She and her daughter "warmed themselves and cooked with wood and coal, pumped kitchen water into a dry sink through a pipeline from a well and lived pretty much as though progress was a word that meant walking a little farther on down the road." We learn, furthermore, that on the edge of town her "house sat eighty feet from the sidewalk and was backed by four huge pine trees, from which she got the needles she stuck into her mattress." Certainly, it can be argued that those circumstances of adulthood are unusual until we learn "how she loved, as a girl, to chew pine needles and as a result smelled even then like a forest."

Yes, a child who eats of trees will smell like trees; it might have been a matter of no more or less than that. But Celie and Pilate, as well as Welty's Phoenix, are endowed with special power so that even when a "flashing" nickel falls from the hunter's pocket, Phoenix's "fingers slid down and along the ground under the piece of money with the grace and care they would have in lifting an egg from under a setting hen." However, at this point it is no longer Phoenix who is acting, for she simply "stood erect, and the nickel was in her apron pocket." A bird conspicuously flies overhead and we are made to know that this is not just thievery, in the sense of some outrageous crime, but a certain kind of natural redistribution that has taken place between the hunter who shoots bobwhites and Welty's keeper of the woods. It was Harper Lee, speaking through the voice of Atticus Finch, who had warned, "it's a sin to kill a mockingbird" (Mockingbird). "All they do is sing their hearts out for us," Miss Maudie adds. Anyone who has heard the melodious calling of the bobwhite bird knows how it would be should they become extinct. Their greatest "crime," like that of the mockingbird, lies in the singing that makes them the hunters' prey. In "A Worn Path" it becomes a phoenix burden to avenge, at least in some small way, the "bitter" fate.

Somewhat similarly, Phoenix is the designated protector of another worthy innocent. Isaacs sees her grandson as symbolic of the Christ child, and this is understandable. That grandson with the "sweet look" was capable of infinite suffering. Moreover, Phoenix is shown declaring to the doctor's nurse that she "could tell him from all the others in creation." But there is a difficulty in that strictly theological approach. In an analysis of Flannery O'Connor's "The Artificial Nigger," Louis Rubin remembers a comment made by O'Connor during a symposium at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. O'Connor had regretfully conveyed, "So many students approach a story as if it were a problem in algebra; find x and when they find x they can dismiss the rest of it" ("Company"). Agreeing with that statement on literary limitation, Rubin proposes, "What we need is criticism that will explore the complexity of the work, and not merely seek to use it to make theological observations." Even with writers who come from areas of strong religious background, there is a danger in the rendering of biblical perspective. Like O'Connor, Welty hails from the southern Bible Belt where such considerations are quite necessary; yet, this does not mean Phoenix must be Moses and her grandson, by biblical comparison, is absolutely Christ. The meaning behind the grandson will not be so easy to uncover.

While there is also a bit of difficulty in taking literally everything an author says about her work, it will perhaps be helpful to examine what Welty says about this story as a means to analyze the second thing that Phoenix might epitomize. Bartel has placed much emphasis on the question of whether or not the grandson is alive, and in her essay entitled "Is Phoenix Jackson's Grandson Really Dead?" Welty reveals that as the question she is asked most often through the mail. This is how she chooses to respond:

The grandson's plight was real and it made the truth of the story, which is the story of an errand of love carried out. If the child no longer lived, the truth would persist in the "wornness" of the path. But his being dead can't increase the truth of the story, can't affect it one way or the other. I think I signal this, because the end of the story has been reached before old Phoenix gets home again: she simply starts back. To the question "Is the grandson really dead?" I could reply that it doesn't make any difference. I could also say that I did not make him up in order to let him play a trick on Phoenix. But my best answer would be: "Phoenix is alive."

There is some hesitancy on the part of Welty as she provides this explanation. As to that question concerning the possibility of the grandson's death, she answers, "I could reply that it doesn't make any difference" and "I could also say that I did not make him up in order to let him play a trick." Such ambivalence makes us inclined to take to heart what she had said some twenty years before in another piece, dated 1955, entitled "Writing and Analyzing a Story." Then she had asserted, "I never saw, as reader or writer, that a finished story stood in need of any more from the author." Nevertheless one tends to accept what she does say in later years about her complex story. What interest could she have had in tricking Phoenix? Furthermore, it must not be too crucial whether the grandson is alive or dead; the story has been most effective at the same time that we do not know. Welty directs our focus, instead, to the fact that Phoenix is alive and has been successful in her errand carried out in love. Without love, Phoenix could not have made the arduous journey along that route toward Natchez for the grandson's medicine. Vyry is gifted with a spirit that is just the same. Margaret Walker's character professes:

God knows I ain't got no hate in my heart for nobody. If I is and doesn't know it, I prays to God to take it out. I ain't got no time to be hating. I believes in God and I believes in trying to love and help everybody, and I knows that humble is the way. I doesn't care what you calls me, that's my doctrine and I'm gwine preach it to my childrens, every living one I got or ever hopes to have.

One remembers the sometimes torturous position of black women during slavery and wonders how those conditions could have nurtured such a doctrine. In the midst of slavery, and for years beyond, there have been solitary women, black and oppressed though they might have been, who were rightfully declared as mothers to a world. We see the situation yet again in Langston Hughes' autobiographical novel Not Without Laughter, where the child is raised by a grandmother who offers him this lesson:

"White peoples maybe mistreats you 'n hates you, but when you hates 'em back, you's de one what's hurted, 'cause hate makes yo' heart ugly—that's all it does. It closes up de sweet door to life an' makes ever'thing small an' mean an' dirty. Honey, there ain't no room in de world fo' hate, white folks hatin' niggers, an' niggers hatin' white folks. There ain't no room in this world fo' nothin' but love, Sandy chile. That's all they's room fo'—nothin' but love."

Only pages into the novel, we become aware of that grandmother's altruistic character. A cyclone rages and not long after, she has ventured out to see where she is needed. The narrator informs, "All the neighborhood, white or colored, called his grandmother when something happened." As was the case with Walker's Vyry and Welty's Phoenix, Hughes' old black woman "always came" although, just as with Vyry, "Sometimes they paid her and sometimes they didn't." The capacity for endless love is compensation in itself; it is the only fuel these women need to journey. We can believe what Welty says: whether or not the grandson in her story is alive or dead, it is the memory of love that keeps old Phoenix going.

This process of keeping on is the third important thing that Phoenix epitomizes. It was the white hunter who had warned her, "you take my advice and stay home, and nothing will happen to you." There is enough of an understanding between the hunter and the woman for him to be genuinely concerned; he had helped her off her back and shared a word or/two. But he cannot comprehend it all. "You must be a hundred years old, and scared of nothing," he admires. More than likely, the second part of what he says is true; however, the matter of her age is not so simple when we contemplate that she has always been around to do her duty. Whether it be 500 or 97,200 years ago that her initial trek began, the phoenix represents unqualified persistence.

Another white character in the story is caught between comprehension and naivete with regard to Welty's austere grandmother. Clearly, the woman with the Christmas packages has an edge on others; note how Phoenix is able to pick her from the throng. Furthermore, this stranger "gave off perfume like the red roses in hot summer." The signal harkens back to nature, and Phoenix asks, "Please, missy, will you lace up my shoe?" "Can't lace 'em with a cane," that old black woman further emphasizes. A good question to ask is why Phoenix won't just sit down on a bench, release the cane, and tie the shoes herself? That stranger does not think about this possibility; she merely ties the shoes out of respect. Beyond this, it would be too much to ask that the white shopper ascertain the value of the makeshift cane and comprehend why Phoenix will not let it go.

It is only after Phoenix makes it to the doctor's office that she encounters one who is obdurate. "Speak up, Grandma," the white attendant is immediately brusque. She demands to know the older woman's name, but before Phoenix can even answer, the attendant is demanding once again, "What seems to be the trouble with you?" Bothered none at all, Phoenix merely twitches and remains intent on fulfilling her great mission. Just as that attendant is at the point of losing all patience, screaming, "Are you deaf?" the white nurse comes right in to show compassion. "We won't keep you standing after your long trip" she consoles. Even as that nurse prods our traveler with questions about her grandson's condition, she does so with an air of gentleness. "You musn't take up our time this way, Aunt Phoenix" is the most insistent that the nurse will get before Phoenix, with a hint of recognition, finally responds. What Phoenix recognizes is that the nurse is in possession of some understanding of her journey. In what might at first seem to be a matter-of-fact reply, the nurse allows, "Throat never heals, does it?" If the throat has never healed, why is it that Phoenix only needs to make the trip but once at the exact same time each year? She actually becomes a symbol for the world to see, a model of determination. And the gesture is not lost, for the attendant who had been unkind before now offers Phoenix money; this in itself does not present solution (recall the nickel Phoenix picked up from the hunter) but it does give hope for the future as it will go toward the purchase of a windmill (or star) upon which wishes can be made.

During the time that Welty's story was created, such hope may well have been a rare commodity. There was no formal integration, and atrocities such as those involving Emmett Till, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney were yet to come. Mississippi, with its incomparable natural beauty, has been plagued with stigmas far back into time. The city of Natchez, toward which old Phoenix journeys, has itself been belabored with a brutal past.

When the nurse declares to Phoenix, "it's an obstinate case," she does not just mean to say that the grandson's ailment is persistent. One remembers the autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, where Maya Angelou tells us the story of a childhood toothache. With the nearest black dentist twenty-five miles away in Texarkana, the burden falls on Annie Henderson, one more black grandmother, to try and get a white dentist to see Angelou right there in Stamps, Arkansas, where the author was being reared. At that white dentist's office, Henderson is insistent but the practitioner responds, "Annie, you know I don't treat nigra, colored people." The grandmother implores again; the dentist says, "I don't treat colored people." Finally the old black woman resorts to calling in a debt, reminding Dr. Lincoln, "seems like maybe you owe me a favor or two," and as the dentist reddens, we conjure up the past. It is the same past Faulkner could not do without, and so he dedicated Go Down, Moses to his mammy, Caroline Barr, who incidently lived to be a hundred too. It is a past filled with mammies who had provided for white children better than they did their own, giving love and dedication even when almost every circumstance dictated otherwise. In Welty's story the doctor would probably not, even in that era of house calls, have gone to a black home; furthermore, a black child would probably not have had access to his facility. But still, Phoenix comes to get the medicine and the nurse reminds, "The doctor said as long as you came to get it, you could have it." Phoenix Jackson will continue to come in, her quest far too important to just end. In her essay entitled "Is Phoenix Jackson's Grandson Really Dead?" the artist shifts attention to a mighty cause. "The path is the thing that matters" she has said, and we must suspect that the patient traveler can trod this way until the end of time.

Ruth D. Weston (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564

SOURCE: "Gothic Space as Narrative Technique," in Gothic Traditions and Narrative Techniques in the Fiction of Eudora Welty, Louisiana State University Press, 1994, pp. 15-47.

[In the following excerpt, Weston examines evidence of the Gothic tradition in "A Worn Path."]

It is not nature that is the spirit of healing in "A Worn Path," but human love and endurance, in spite of a world that might seem Gothic to those less grounded in reality than is Phoenix Jackson. Although it is justly celebrated for its humorous and inspirational depiction of Phoenix's love and of her clever adaptability in the natural world, even "A Worn Path" contains images of a gothic space and situation. The old woman with the exotic name walks through a winter wasteland from the Natchez Trace, up the hill through "dark pine shadows" and then down under live oaks, where "it was as dark as a cave," to the town of Natchez. Not only gothic entrapment but also the historical reality of slavery in the South is suggested by Phoenix's own image for her weariness—"Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far"—and by the thorny bush and barbed-wire fence that entangle her along the way. The "ghost" in this story is only a scarecrow; but she is menaced as well by a real black dog and by "big dead trees like black men with one arm," and a row of weathered houses appears in gothic array like "old women under a spell sitting there." It even seemed necessary for Welty to explain the story's motivation, in "Is Phoenix Jackson's Grandson Really Dead?" to readers who believed the grandson, too, was a ghost, so fully "mysterious" is this most-magic work. The fact that Phoenix is associated with magic and with conjuring is a part of the realistic depiction of black culture, in which "women have long possessed 'magical' powers" [Marjorie Pryse, "Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and the 'Ancient Power' of Black Women," in Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, 1985]. Thus the story illustrates the felicity of gothic images to deal with the many mysterious but very real facets of life as it is lived.

It is that combination of the real and the imaginary that characterizes the life of Phoenix Jackson. Besides the obvious qualities of faith and love that impel such a journey in the first place, her equanimity is due to several other aspects of her complex personality. If, for example, Phoenix seems remarkably without bitterness for an elderly, poor black woman in a forbidding, cold, white world, it is at least partly because the lives imaginatively. For one thing, she lives by her wits; thus, in the white man's South she uses good humor and frank admission of need to gain assistance from a hunter, a shopper, and a nurse. In addition, she respects the world and its powers and mysteries: "Thorns," she says, "you doing your appointed work. Never want to let folks pass, no sir." She also works her own magic, conjuring in the direction of perceived motion in the thicket: "Out of my way, all you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons and wild animals! . . . Keep out from under these feet, little bob-whites. . . . Keep the big wild hogs out of my path. Don't let none of those come running my direction. I got a long way" (Welty's ellipses).


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