Style and Technique

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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?

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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.”

Historical Context

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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, their economic situation was grim, and it was only exacerbated by the Great Depression. Phoenix wears red rags in her hair and an apron of sugar sacks. At the clinic, the nurse writes "charity'' next to her name. The two nickels Phoenix acquires in the story seem may have seemed like a small fortune to her, and the paper windmill she wants to buy for her grandson is most likely a luxury and quite possibly the only store-bought toy he would have received that year.

Literary Style

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Point of View
"A Worn Path" is told from a third-person limited point of view. This allows the reader to empathize with Phoenix, because her thoughts and actions are shown. Yet, in third-person, the reader is allowed to view Phoenix from a distance, and thereby see her as others see her.

Symbolism
The most obvious symbol in the story is Phoenix Jackson's comparison to the mythological bird, the phoenix. Dressed in vivid colors, Phoenix's resilience is underscored by her comparison with a bird that rises from the ashes every 500 years. Additionally, Phoenix's grandson is described by the woman as "[wearing] a little patch quilt and peep out holding his mouth open like a little bird."

Similes
Welty has been praised from early on for her use of language. In using similes, she makes vivid comparisons that help the reader form a mind's eye picture of the action. Similes are direct comparisons that use words such as "like" or "as" to link the two ideas. One such simile in this story occurs in the description of Phoenix Jackson's face: "Her skin had a pattern all its own of numberless branching wrinkles and as though a whole little tree stood in the middle of her forehead. "The narrator describes her cane as being "limber as a buggy whip." As Phoenix walks across the log, she looks "like a festival figure in some parade." She encounters big dead trees "like black men with one arm." Other similes in the story appeal to various senses, such as smell: "she gave off perfume like the red roses in the summer," In touching the scarecrow, Phoenix finds "a coat and inside that an emptiness, cold as ice."

Setting
Setting is crucial to the purpose of this story because Welty conceived the idea for the tale of Phoenix Jackson as she sat with a painter friend out on the Old Natchez Trace. The Trace is an old highway that runs from Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez, Mississippi. By 1800 it was the busiest in the American South. Phoenix lives "away back off the Old Natchez Trace,'' as the nurse in the doctor's office says. This indicates that Phoenix lives fairly far from Natchez, which means that the journey— compounded by the fact that it is December—is difficult for her. In the rural area, she encounters animals, thorny bushes, ditches, streams to be crossed by logs, barbed-wire fences, and even people. These obstacles underscore how deeply she cares and sacrifices for her grandson. When the narrator tells us at the end of the story that "her slow step began on the stairs, going down," it indicates that she is faced with a return journey as arduous as the one she just completed. Time is also important in the story: Phoenix says that she was "too old at the Surrender" to go to school. If the story takes place in the time it was written, 1941, Phoenix would be anywhere from 80 to 100 years old. This further magnifies the intensity of her journey and the tragic situation of her grandson's dependence on her.

Conflict
Every work of fiction has some kind of conflict, and most obvious one in "A Worn Path" is Phoenix's struggle against nature and the landscape. The determination Phoenix shows when faced with various hardships on her path help define her character for the reader. Other outward conflicts in the story result from her encounters with the hunter and with the attendant in the doctor's office. The hunter teases her and points a gun at her; Phoenix remains calm and steady, causing the hunter to exclaim "Well, Granny...you must be a hundred years old, and scared of nothing." The conflict with the office attendant serves to show another side of Phoenix, her dignity in the face of racial and age discrimination. She refuses to speak to the condescending woman until the nurse comes in and explains who she is. When the attendant, possibly out of guilt, offers to give Phoenix a few pennies from her purse, Phoenix "stiffly" says, "Five pennies is a nickel." Through the use of the conflicts, which seem ordinary, Welty shows how daily life can be a struggle for someone like Phoenix.

Compare and Contrast

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1941: Native Son, a stage adaptation of James Baldwin's novel, opens at the St. James Theater in New York City.

1997: Tiger Woods becomes the youngest person to win golf's Master's Tournament, as well as the first person of color to do so.

1941: African-American doctor Charles Richard Drew opens the first blood bank in New York.
Segregation laws prevent him from donating his own blood.

1997: The White House issues an official policy to the survivors and families of the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment which began in the 1940s. Hundreds of infected black men were denied treatment in order to study the effects of the disease over time.

1941: Negro Digest begins publishing in Chicago with an initial circulation of 3,000.

1997: African-American filmmaker Spike Lee forms an advertising company to make television commercials geared towards black and urban consumers.

Media Adaptations

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"A Worn Path" was adapted into a into a 20-minute film produced by Worn Path Productions and distributed by Pyramid Film and Video. The film includes a ten-minute interview with Eudora Welty, conducted by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Beth Henley.

"Eudora Welty Reads 'Why I Live at the P.O.' and "A Worn Path''' was produced by Caedmon Audio Cassettes in 1992.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Glenn, Eunice. "Fantasy in the Fiction of Eudora Welty,'' in Critiques and Essays on Modern Fiction: Representing the Achievement of Modern America and British Critics, 1920-1951, edited by John W Aldridge, The Ronald Press Company, 1952, pp 506-17.

Warren, Robert Penn. "The Love and the Separateness of Miss Welty," in Kenyon Review, Volume 6, 1944, pp 246-259.

Welty, Eudora The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews, Vintage Books/Random House, 1979.

Further Reading
Butterworth, Nancy K. "From Civil War to Civil Rights: Race Relations in 'A Worn Path,'" in Eudora Welty: Eye of the Storyteller, edited by Dawn Trouard, Kent State University Press, 1989.
Butterworth discusses the racial politics of the story.

Conversations with Eudora Welty, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, University Press of Mississippi, 1984.
Collected here are many interviews and personal conversations various people have had with Eudora Welty. A valuable resource for those interested in the author herself, her work, her life, and her concerns.

Eudora Welty, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.
This collection of thirteen essays about Eudora Welty's fiction provides an excellent introduction to her work. These essays are written by some very well-known critics and writers, such as Katherme Anne Porter, Joyce Carol Oates, and Robert Penn Warren.

Schmidt, Peter The Heart of the Story: Eudora Welty's Short Fiction, University Press of Mississippi, 1991.
An analysis of Welty's short stories in the contexts of Southern writing and women's writing.

Welty, Eudora. One Writer's Beginnings, Harvard University Press, 1984.
This autobiography of sorts is a more recent publication by Welty, The sections "Listening," "Learning to See," and "Finding a Voice" may provide inspiration to those who wish to become writers.

Westling, Louise. Eudora Welty, Barnes and Noble Books, 1989.
This book comes from the "Women Writers" series, and, therefore, it has a somewhat gender-based approach. The chapters deal with ways that women appear in the work of Welty, a writer who is sometimes uncomfortable with the ideas of feminism.

Bibliography

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Champion, Laurie. The Critical Response to Eudora Welty’s Fiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Gygax, Franziska. Serious Daring from Within: Female Narrative Strategies in Eudora Welty’s Novels. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.

Gretlund, Jan Nordby. Eudora Welty’s Aesthetics of Place. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994.

Gretlund, Jan Nordby, and Karl-Heinz Westarp, eds. The Late Novels of Eudora Welty. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.

Johnston, Carol Ann. Eudora Welty: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1997.

Kreyling, Michael. Understanding Eudora Welty. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.

McHaney, Pearl Amelia, ed. Eudora Welty: Writers’ Reflections upon First Reading Welty. Athens, Ga.: Hill Street Press, 1999.

Montgomery, Marion. Eudora Welty and Walker Percy: The Concept of Home in Their Lives and Literature. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2004.

Waldron, Ann. Eudora: A Writer’s Life. New York: Doubleday, 1998.

Weston, Ruth D. Gothic Traditions and Narrative Techniques in the Fiction of Eudora Welty. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.

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