Style and Technique
Winner of an O. Henry Memorial Contest short story award, “A Worn Path” though an early story, is as accomplished as any of Welty’s later fiction. This story exemplifies Welty’s special power of placing the reader inside convincing and interesting characters without reducing the essential mystery of human character. This power makes her characters seem complete and real. In her essay on “A Worn Path,” Welty reveals that the story originated in her vision of a solitary old woman: I saw her, at a 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 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?
Welty also emphasizes that, though it is possible that the grandson is dead, the really important feature of the story is Phoenix’s belief that he is alive and that “he going to last.” This incentive for Phoenix’s quest is central; the possible ambiguity of the grandson’s condition is peripheral. Welty’s expressed purpose in this story is to focus on Phoenix’s habitual goodness.
Crucial to the story’s success is Welty’s choice of narrative point of view. By confining the reader to Phoenix’s perceptions, Welty avoids the danger of sentimentality that she would have risked in a more external presentation of a good person. Though Phoenix may be no better morally than the Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), she seems more real, more in the world—in part because judgments of her character arise from the reader’s evaluation of her actions without the insistent help of an intrusive narrator.
Phoenix’s thoughts and words are enough to establish her unself-conscious love, courage, and other attractive qualities, but Welty uses the tainted evaluations of the people Phoenix meets to bring out the central qualities of love and courage that illuminate the idea Welty saw in the image that became the origin of her story. That image of a solitary old woman walking across a winter landscape came to mean “the deep-grained habit of love.”
War and Poverty
Welty's "A Worn Path" was published in 1941, the same year the United States entered World War II, Europe had already been involved in the conflict for several years since Adolph Hitler began enlarging Germany's empire. Germany declared war on the United States in December, after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the U.S.'s declaration of war against Japan. Set against the brewing global conflict, Welty's tale of rural life in the South may seem out of context for the times. Phoenix Jackson's world is much smaller than the global world of international warfare. Her world revolves around her home, her grandson, and the rural life of Natchez, Mississippi.
The story was inspired in part by the work Welty was doing in the early 1940s for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was established by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1934 as a way to put many unemployed people to work building necessary infrastructure—bridges, dams, power plants—to make the country a modern and efficient world power. Welty was a photographer for the WPA, which also included many arts programs, and as she observed an elderly black woman laboriously crossing a field, the idea for "A Worn Path'' emerged. Poverty during these years was a reality for many, particularly for blacks and particularly for rural Southerners. Phoenix Jackson was both of these. Quite possibly, Phoenix was old enough to have been born into slavery, or at the very least into the era of sharecropping that followed. Most tobacco and cotton plantations—two of the primary industries of the South at the turn of the century—were owned by wealthy whites who allowed the blacks to work for them in return for an overpriced room and board of meagre proportions. For her generation,...
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