At a Glance

"A Worn Path" key themes:

  • In "A Worn Path," love can become so deeply ingrained in the human heart that it becomes a habit that exists beyond conscious thought or reason.
  • Unselfish love inspires courage, compassion, and sacrifice.
  • Racism breeds arrogance and cruelty and illustrates the ignorance of those who marginalize other human beings.
  • The human spirit can endure, despite the forces of nature and society that would destroy it.
  • Even deeply flawed human beings are capable of kindness and generosity.  

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In her essay “Is Phoenix Jackson’s Grandson Really Dead?” Eudora Welty speaks of “the deep-grained habit of love” that is Phoenix’s motive for her trip: “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 central motive of Phoenix’s quest is true charity, the “deep-grained habit of love” for her grandson. This motive accounts for her apparent lapses in confiscating the lost nickel and in specifying how much money she would like when offered pennies for Christmas. Love also accounts for Phoenix’s courage, making it natural and unconscious, simply necessary rather than extraordinary.

Phoenix’s courage and true charity are underlined by her encounters with the young hunter and the clinic employees. When the hunter belittles her and boasts of himself because he walks as far as she does when he hunts little birds, with which Phoenix compares her grandson, because he can order his dog to drive off the strange dog that has frightened her, and because he has a gun he can point at her, the reader sees the truer courage of her heart—not merely in her lack of fear of the gun but in her whole journey as well. The hunter’s courage comes from his tools and youthful folly, Phoenix’s from her love. When the clinic employees remind her twice that hers is a charity case, expecting gratitude for what they give, they contrast sharply with Phoenix who dreams of and delights in bringing her grandson comfort and joy. In approaching true charity, in which love rather than self-praise is the motive, Phoenix achieves true courage. In Phoenix, Welty presents an ideal of goodness.

Themes

(Short Stories for Students)

"A Worn Path" is Eudora Welty's story of an old African-American woman's ritual journey. Its themes are elicited from the symbol of the journey as well as the encounters the old woman has on her journey. Critics have praised Welty's use of language, myth, and symbol in this deceptively simple story.

Race and Racism
Issues of race often inform Welty's fiction for the fact that so much of her fiction is set in Mississippi during the 1940s and 1950s. Phoenix's brief encounters on her journey typify the views of many Southern whites during the era. A white hunter helps her out of a ditch but patronizes her and trivializes her journey: "I know you old colored people! Wouldn't miss going to town to see Santa Claus!" He also taunts her by pointing his loaded gun at her and asking, "Doesn't the gun scare you?" Through these exchanges, Welty shows how some whites regarded blacks. He also calls her "Granny,'' a term common for older African-American women. Often whites would call older blacks "Aunt," "Granny," or "Uncle" as a way of denying them their dignity and individuality. In another example of this, the nurse calls her "aunt Phoenix" instead of the more formal "Mrs. Jackson." Although no one in the story is actually rude or discriminatory towards Phoenix, Welty demonstrates the subtle persecutions that blacks suffer in a white world.

Duty and Responsibility
Phoenix Jackson is mobilized by her sense of duty to her grandson. Because she is the only person her grandson has to rely on—"We is the only two left in the world," she tells the nurse—she is determined to make it to town to obtain the medicine that will soothe his injured throat. Her...

(The entire section is 1,146 words.)