Implications of Race

(Short Stories for Students)

Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path," written in 1940, is one of the author's most frequently anthologized stories, but this by no means indicates that it is her easiest. There is a depth of ambiguity in it. Twentieth-century critics have chosen, for the most part, to examine the role race plays in the story and through that to either condemn Welty or exalt her for her views. But race is certainly not the story's only concern. Questions of age, service, dedication, and myth also inform the story.

However, it is with race that any discussion of Welty's story must begin. Welty comes from Mississippi, in many ways the most notoriously troubled of Southern states. Born there in 1909 (to Northern parents), she grew up and has spent most of her life in Jackson. She grew up in an era where the Civil War and Reconstruction were still remembered by many of her neighbors, and she herself has lived through the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s and the Southern renaissance of the 1980s and 1990s. However, politics very rarely enters her work directly. Her stories deal with race relations on a personal level.

Welty has discussed the genesis of "A Worn Path'' in numerous interviews. The inspiration for Phoenix Jackson was an ancient black woman whom Welty saw walking across the countryside as Welty was sitting under a tree near the Natchez Trace with a painter friend. "I watched her cross that landscape in the half-distance,'' she explains, "and when I got home I wrote that story that she had made me think of." In another interview, she added that "I knew she was going somewhere. I knew she was bent on an errand, even at that distance. It was not anything casual. It was a purposeful, measured journey she was making—you wouldn't go on an errand like that—unless it were for someone else, you know. Unless it were an emergency."

"A Worn Path" traces the journey of an ancient black woman who walks to Natchez, Mississippi, in order to obtain medicine for her grandson, who permanently injured himself by swallowing lye. On this, most of her critics agree, but that is as far as they go. One group holds that Welty's portrayal of the black race through her main character, Phoenix Jackson, is eminently sympathetic; another feels that Welty shares with many other Southern writers a tendency to portray blacks as long-suffering and enduring, and in doing so robs them of their true complexity as human beings.

Crucial to any assessment of this question is whether Phoenix Jackson is intended to stand as a representative of her race. Certainly, she plays into one stereotypical Southern image of blacks: the ancient, plodding, superstitious grandmother who talks to herself. Welty seems to undercut this image by introducing the hunter, who treats Jackson as precisely that kind of a stereotype. "I know you old colored people!" he tells her. "Wouldn't miss going to town to see Santa Claus!" He seems like a buffoon here, but when he drops his nickel and she picks it up, critics see the action as either indicative of another pejorative stereotype of blacks (craftiness and dishonesty) or as illustrative of her superiority over him. Similarly, critics disagree on the significance of the white woman in Natchez tying Jackson's shoe. Is this an indication, as one critic holds, of "courtesy warranted by virtue of her age and her 'fealty' to the white race,'' or is it a comical representation of black helplessness?

The position that Welty's characterization of Jackson relies heavily on stereotypes is quite convincing. There is a long tradition of white Southern writers exalting the...

(The entire section is 1473 words.)

Life for Phoenix

(Short Stories for Students)

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 corner or at least a hair.'' But it does belong to a specific story-teller's genre familiar from Homer to [Henry] Fielding to [Jack] 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 cliches 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 criss-crossed 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 die 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 nickel).

The richness of all this evocation of a Christianity-Christmas frame of a reference heightens the specific...

(The entire section is 2491 words.)

Is Phoenix Jackson's Grandson Really Dead?

(Short Stories for Students)

A story writer is more than happy to be read by students; the fact that these serious readers think and feel something in response to his work he finds life-giving. At the same time, he may not always be able to reply to their specific questions in kind. I wondered if it might clarify something, for both the questioners and myself, if I set down a general reply to the question that comes to me most often in the mail, from both students and their teachers, after some classroom discussion. The unrivaled favorite is this: "Is Phoenix Jackson's grandson really dead?"

It refers to a short story I wrote years ago called "A Worn Path," which tells of a day's journey an old woman makes on foot from deep in the country...

(The entire section is 1312 words.)

A Worn Path: Immortality of Stereotype

(Short Stories for Students)

On the surface Eudora Welty's short story "A Worn Path" is an account of an old black woman's journey from Old Natchez Trace to Natchez. In fact, some readers may perceive Old Phoenix as a negative black stereotype. However, a second level of interpretation indicates a powerful statement of man's immortality. This paper will be concerned with three elements that substantiate the theme of immortality: references to death, references to time, and references to the Phoenix myth from Egyptian mythology. In this way, Old Phoenix is not a stereotype but a symbol of immortality.

Old Phoenix' journey has significance. The title of the story—"A Worn Path"—suggests the journey to be ritualistic, an idea supported by the...

(The entire section is 852 words.)