Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 693

Since its publication, Welty's story "A Worn Path'' has found a responsive audience. One of the most widely anthologized stories of any American writer, the story of Phoenix Jackson's trip into town for her grandson's medicine has been praised both for its simplicity and for its depth. Although the story is brief and simple—the tale of an elderly black woman who travels into town—it contains a level of ambiguity that has fascinated readers for sixty years. Readers have wondered whether the grandson for whom Phoenix Jackson travels along the Natchez Trace is already dead when the story begins. Evidence within the story could support either interpretation, and Welty has said herself only that at least Phoenix believes that he is alive. She says that Phoenix must believe that her journey is in pursuit of life, not death.

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Welty's stories are set in the South, and thus her characters' region is often distinguished by their speech and habits; however, Welty's themes transcend regional boundaries and have universal appeal. Critics responded to her first collection, A Curtain of Green, favorably and predicted that she would continue to write engaging fiction. With her second collection of stories, The Wide Net and Other Stories, critics such as Diana Trilling and Robert Penn Warren noticed mat Welty's fiction was becoming richer in theme and allusion. Critics began to call her style impressionistic since she often uses metaphor and symbol to convey her meaning. Warren said that "the items of fiction {scene, action, character, etc.) are presented not as document but as comment, not as report but as a thing made, not as history but as idea."

Through the 1940s Welty continued to refine her vision for her work, and her third collection The Golden Apples won many critics over with its highly symbolic complexity, quite different from the simple regional stories with which she began. In the 1950s she published another collection of short stories, The Bride of Innisfallen, and won the William Dean Howells Medal of the Academy of Arts and Letters for her novella The Ponder Heart. Welty wrote little during the 1960s, but after a period of traveling and lecturing, she returned to writing with two novels, Losing Battles and The Optimist's Daughter, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Although her last stories were written in 1955, the publication in 1980 of the Collected Stories of Eudora Welty verifies her standing as one of the most popular story writers of her era.

Robert Penn Warren, in an important essay in 1944, wrote that Welty writes her stories as if "the author cannot be quite sure what did happen, cannot quite undertake to resolve the meaning of the recorded event, cannot, in fact, be too sure of recording all of the event." In other words, Welty presents an ambiguous situation in her stories and is not concerned about answering all the questions she raised. Using point of view carefully so as not to reveal too much, Welty has been praised for her ability to convey a strong sense of her character's emotions and experience at specific moments in time. Critics have responded well to her use of symbolism and allusion to communicate sensory impressions. In her fiction, Welty merges the everyday with the universal, and readers have been able to enter her world and feel at home.

Other elements of Welty's fiction that critics have praised include her skillful use of language and her diversity in content, form, and tone. While one would not call Welty an experimental writer like her fellow Mississippian William Faulkner, her fiction does contain a wide array of moods, subjects, and voices. While some of her stories are light, humorous, or even outright hilarious, such as "Why I Live at the P.O.," others are tragic and serious, such as "Clyde." Some critics have not responded well to Welty's use of die grotesque or absurd, as in the story "The Petrified Man," and some critics have questioned her approach to race issues, but most agree that her stories contain truth, as Eunice Glenn says, "making everyday life appear as it often does, without the use of a magnifying glass."

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A Worn Path, Eudora Welty

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