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Written by Timothy Sexton
Named after both the mythological bird that rise renewed from the ashes of the fire which consumed and the city in which author Eudora Welty was born and died, the elderly black grandmother using a cane made from umbrella to maintain her balance while walking in unlaced shoes may seem as far removed from the heroes of legend as it is possible to get. Part of the significance of “A Worn Path” has much to do with how appearances can be deceiving, however. Phoenix Jackson may move slowly, but she proves quick enough that she is a force to be reckoned with and in the process becomes one of the great characters in African-American literary history who is not actually the creation of an African-American author.
The White Hunter
. At times, the hunter appears benevolent toward Phoenix, but then he also points his gun straight at her and inquires as to the level of fear his action inspires. The benevolent side of the hunter and the malevolent side of the hunter cannot and should not be separated, however, because his attitude remains the same regardless of his actions. What is going on here is a manifestation of ingrained white southern superiority and the resulting assurance that both helping and hurting someone whose skin is black is merely a demonstration of the exact same power.
The attendant at first seems to be a much more malignant and repulsive character than the white hunter since she doesn’t really do much to help Phoenix even though her position within the health care system is supposed to be about nothing but giving help. The attendant is much more explicitly racist than the hunter and then compounds that repugnant quality by also having a natural prejudice against the elderly. Her only act of kindness toward the old lady is the offer of a few pennies since it is Christmas, after all. But is the offer genuine kindness or just a reaffirmation that the attendant sees the world through economic blinders of assumption?
“A Worn Path” is clearly allegorical in nature and theme as its tale stretches back to make connections to figures from ancient myth. The Nurse can certainly fulfill that role for the literati, but for the typical reader she is much more valuable as a representative of contemporary society than as a symbol of legendary tales. The nurse is, quite simply, a somewhat prettified symbol of institutionalized, bureaucratic valuation of worth of human beings on nothing but an inequitably balanced economic scale.
Phoenix Jackson’s grandson does not actually make an appearance in the narrative progression of her journey, but his presence lingers over the entire length and breadth of her odyssey like Vito Corleone’s position as a major character in The Godfather despite sharing the kind of screen time usually associated with minor supporting characters. The Grandson’s status as major thematic player in “A Worn Path” is courtesy of his medical condition resulting from drinking lye and the fact that his parents seem to be missing from the picture.
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