Implications of Race

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1473

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.

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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 primitiveness of blacks: a move that, while not racist in intent (their primitiveness is used to teach more "sophisticated" whites about the virtues of simplicity), is somewhat demeaning in effect. If Jackson is meant to represent blacks as a whole, what are we to make of her "naivete and helplessness''? If her great age is in one respect an asset, does it not also suggest that blacks are changeless and eternal? The final words in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, "They endure," is his summary assessment of the state of blacks in the South. Certainly, he has respect for their "endurance," but is it not also patronizing to confer only this compliment upon an entire race of people? Welty's critics still wrestle over whether she grants blacks sufficient human diversity, or whether, like her fellow Mississippian Faulkner, she treats them too much as simple symbols of endurance.

Welty herself, in 1965, anticipated this conflict, and argued that it was off me mark. In her essay "Must the Novelist Crusade?'' she shifts the question, saying that the relationship between the races cannot be separated from other relationships between people. "There are relationships of blood, of the passions and affections, of thought and spirit and deed. This is the relationship between the races. How can one kind of relationship be set apart from the others? Like a great root system of an old and long-established growing plant, they are all tangled up together; to separate them you would have to cleave the plant itself from top to bottom.'' The very nature of her metaphor of die "long-established plant," though, seems to many critics to subtly defend a slow pace of change in the South: this situation is very old, she seems to be saying, and we cannot rush things.

The other primary approach to this story has been to examine its mythological underpinnings. Phoenix Jackson's name is a reference to the mythological "phoenix"—a mythical bird that lives in the desert for 500-600 years and then sets itself on fire, only to rise again from its own ashes, and is a popular symbol for immortality. Certainly, age plays a significant part in the story. If we accept that the story is set in Welty's present, i.e. at the time when she wrote the story, then the "present" is 1940. Jackson tells the scarecrow: "My senses is gone. I too old. I the oldest people I ever know.'' When the hunter asks her how old she is, she replies,' "There is no telling, mister." However, if what she tells the nurse is true—that she was too old to go to school when Lee surrendered in 1865—then she must be nearly a hundred years old. Yet, like the phoenix, she rises to makes periodic trips to Natchez to get medicine for her grandson.

The season in which the story takes place— Christmas time—reinforces the theme of rebirth. If we see the story as a Christian allegory, then the marble cake that Jackson dreams of suggests the Communion wafers and her crossing of the cornfield suggests the parting of the Red Sea. Also, the soothing medicine which she gives to her permanently sick grandson can be seen as God's grace, and Jackson herself as a Christ figure. In addition, the difficulties which Jackson endures on her way to Natchez can either represent the temptations of Christ in die desert or the stations of the cross.

A number of critics have questioned whether or not Jackson's grandson is even alive. The story is especially affecting if we know that he is already dead, Roland Bartel proposes, and Jackson's apparent bout of forgetfulness and senility in the doctor's office could be her nagging realization that her grandson is, in fact, dead. Welty responded personally to this question in a 1974 essay, acknowledging the possibility that Jackson's grandson is no longer alive, but insisting that she "must assume that the boy is alive'' and admonishing readers that "it is the journey—that is the story." Given that, we must return to the story's mythological resonances. In addition to the aforementioned Christian parallels, the story also suggests Dante, the Italian author of the epic Divine Comedy. The dog, the hunter, and even the descent down the stairs at the end of the story parallel incidents in Dante's Inferno.

"A Worn Path" is finally a simple story, though. Welty's short tale of an old woman's journey to get medicine for her grandson is valuable simply as that, and the starkness of its simplicity is too often undervalued. That very simplicity gives it the ability to support so many political and mythological interpretations. Welty even suggests another, far more personal analogy for Phoenix's journey: her own journey towards the creation of "great fiction." "Like Phoenix, you work all your life to find your way, through all the obstructions and the false appearances and the upsets you may have brought on yourself, to reach a meaning—And finally too, like Phoenix, you have to assume that what your are working in aid of is life, not death."

Source: Greg Barnhisel, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.

Life for Phoenix

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2491

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 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: '"Though 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 mile-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.

Source: Neil D. Isaacs, "Life for Phoenix," in The Critical Response to Eudora Welty's Fiction, edited by Laura Champion, Greenwood Press, 1994, pp. 37-42.

Is Phoenix Jackson's Grandson Really Dead?

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1312

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 into town and into a doctor's office on behalf of her little grandson; he is at home, periodically ill, and periodically she comes for his medicine; they give it to her as usual, she receives it and starts the journey back.

I had not meant to mystify readers by withholding any fact; it is not a writer's business to tease. The story is told through Phoenix's mind as she undertakes her errand. As the author at one with the character as I tell it, I must assume that the boy is alive. As the reader, you are free to think as you like, of course: the story invites you to believe that no matter what happens, Phoenix, for as long as she is able to walk and can hold to her purpose, will make her journey. The possibility that she would keep on even if he were dead is there in her devotion and its single-minded, single-track errand. Certainly the artistic truth, which should be good enough for the fact, lies in Phoenix's own answer to that question. When the nurse asks, "He isn't dead, is he?" she speaks for herself: "He still the same. He going to last."

The grandchild is the incentive. But it is the journey, the going of the errand, that is the story, and the question is not whether the grandchild is in reality alive or dead. It doesn' t affect the outcome of the story or its meaning from start to finish. But it is not the question itself that has struck me as much as the idea, almost without exception implied in the asking, that for Phoenix's grandson to be dead would somehow make the story "better."

It's all right, I want to say to the students who write to me, for things to be what they appear to be, for words to mean what they say. It's all right too for words and appearances to mean more than one thing—ambiguity is a fact of life. But it is not all right, not in good faith, for things not to mean what they say. A fiction writer's responsibility covers not only what he presents as the facts of a given story but what he chooses to stir up as their implications. In the end, these implications too become facts, in the larger, fictional sense.

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."

The origin of a story is sometimes a trustworthy clue to the author—or can provide him with the clue—to its key image; maybe in this case it will do the same for the reader. 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. 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? And her going was the first thing, her persisting in her landscape was the real thing, and the first and the real were what I wanted and worked to keep. 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.

I invented for my character, as I wrote, some passing adventures—some dreams and harassments and a small triumph or two, some jolts to her pride, some flights of fancy to console her, one or two encounters to scare her, a moment that gave her cause to feel ashamed, a moment to dance and preen—for it had to be a journey, and all these things belonged to that, parts of life's uncertainty.

A narrative line is in its deeper sense, of course, the tracing out of a meaning, and the real continuity of a story lies in this probing forward. The real dramatic force of a story depends on the strength of the emotion that has set it going. The emotional value is the measure of the reach of the story. What gives any such content to "A Worn Path" is not its circumstances but its subject: the deep-grained habit of love.

What I hoped would come clear was that in the whole surround of this story, the world it threads through, the only certain thing at all is the worn path. The habit of love 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. The path is the thing that matters.

Her victory—old Phoenix's—is when she sees the diploma in the doctor's office, when she finds "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.'' The return with the medicine is just a matter of retracing her own footsteps. It is the part of the journey, and of the story, that can now go without saying.

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. Your only guide, too, is your sureness about your subject, about what this subject is. Like Phoenix, you work all your life to find your way, through all the obstructions and the false appearances and the upsets you may have brought on yourself, to reach a meaning—using inventions of your imagination, perhaps helped out by your dreams and bits of good luck. And finally, too, like Phoenix, you have to assume that what you are working in aid of is life, not death.

But you would make the trip anyway, wouldn't you?—just on hope.

Source; Eudora Welty, "Is Phoenix Jackson's Grandson Really Dead?," in Critical Inquiry, Vol 1, No. 1, September, 1974, pp. 219-21.

A Worn Path: Immortality of Stereotype

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 852

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 phrase "festival figure" used to describe Old Phoenix. During her journey Old Phoenix is surrounded by death. The season is winter. The earth is frozen. The woods are still, and the dove mourns. She encounters "big dead trees,'' a hunter carrying dead birds, dead weeds. She even dances with a scarecrow. Though she is "in death," Old Phoenix does not die. In fact, she survives splendidly. She appears indestructible, even immortal.

Her immortality is suggested by Welty's references to time. A time image is used to describe Old Phoenix' walk: "the balanced heaviness and lightness of a pendulum in a grandfather clock." Her appearance is "blue with age." When the hunter encounters Old Phoenix, he says "You must be a hundred years old." Even Phoenix says of herself, ''I the oldest people I ever saw."

The idea that Old Phoenix is immortal is given additional support by frequent reference to the Phoenix myth in Egyptian mythology. The Phoenix—also known by the terms bennu and Roc—is a large bird that retains immortality by restoring itself every five hundred years (scholars differ as to the precise period of time) by setting fire to its nest and immolating itself by fanning the fire with its wings. From the ashes a new Phoenix arises. It collects the ashes into an egg and flies to Heliopolis, a religious city in Egypt, and deposits the egg at the Temple of the Sun. Some scholars have linked the death and rebirth of the Phoenix with the rising and setting of the sun.

Although "A Worn Path" is not an exact retelling of the Phoenix myth, certain parallels merit discussion. First, Old Phoenix resembles the mythical bird in personal appearance. The bennu is known for its brilliant scarlet and gold plumage. Welty describes Old Phoenix in this way: "A golden color ran underneath and the two knobs of her cheeks were illuminated by a yellow burning under the dark. Under the red rag, her hair came down on her neck. "When Old Phoenix walks, she resembles a giant bird: "She wore a dark striped dress reaching down to her shoe tops, and an equally long apron of bleached sugar sacks.... Every time she took a step she might have fallen over her unlaced shoes." Even the bennu's ceremonial song finds its parallel: "A grave and persistent noise in the still air, that seemed meditative like the chirping of a little bird.''

Second, parallels exist in the two journeys. Both are made ritually. The nurse at the hospital comments that Old Phoenix "makes these trips as regular as clockwork." The destinations in both cases are large cities: Heliopolis and Natchez. En-route to the city, both travellers stop ceremonially to restore themselves. The Phoenix burns itself on the nest, only to rise from the ashes, fresh and young. When Old Phoenix sits down to rest, she gives the appearance of nesting: "She spread her skirts on the bank around her and folded her hands over her knees.'' Then Welty describes the rejuvenated Phoenix: "There she had to creep and crawl, spreading her knees and stretching her fingers like a baby trying to climb the steps." Further youth images substantiate her rejuvenation: Old Phoenix' request that a lady lace up her shoe, the flame of comprehension at the doctor's office, and the paper wind-mill. The frequent references to birds also help in constructing the mythological basis for the story.

Two further mythological references are worth considering. The shiny nickel which Old Phoenix retrieves "With the grace and care ... in lifting an egg from under a setting hen'' has its parallel in the egg of myrrh taken by the Phoenix to the Temple of the Sun. Second, the two visitations—the imagined encounter with the small boy and the real encounter with the hunter—parallel the manifestations of the sun god Ra, who would assume human form— young in the morning, old in the evening, to correlate with the rising and setting of the sun. This parallel is supported by the many references to sun and light throughout the story.

"A Worn Path," read as a simple narrative, communicates a human experience, both logically and memorably. However, the symbolic level of interpretation, revealing the theme of immortality, gives the story texture and power.

Source: Dan Donlan, '"A Worn Path': Immortality of Stereotype," in English Journal, Vol 62, No. 4, April, 1973, pp. 549-50.

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