How is the complexity of the issue of race depicted in “A Worn Path”?
The protagonist of the story is an old, impoverished black woman of no apparent consequence—which in itself is a commentary on race relations in the South since the story was written by a white woman. Imagery, characterization and symbolism all contribute to the portrayal of how race relations nearly a century after the abolition of slavery remain complicated and intricately threaded into the very fabric of daily interaction. The white hunter, for instance, is presented as both a benevolent assistant to Phoenix and a threatening figure of control and authority. The white women in charge of dispensing medical advice and health care are represented in a way that comments upon the systemic prejudicial bias toward blacks in the South.
What is point of the many small difficulties that obstruct Phoenix as she makes her way along the worn path?
At one point Phoenix gets her skirt caught up in a prickly bush and has to carefully extricate herself so that the material doesn’t get damaged. At another point she must cross a river with only an unsteady old log acting as the bridge. Taken individually, these obstacles don’t amount to much more than merely unpleasant impediments, but collectively they symbolically represent the distinctly evil legacy of bondage and suffering that results from slavery. The thorny bush is nothing less than a pointed allusion to the crown of thorns forced down upon the head of Jesus Christ. The act of Phoenix closing her eyes while crossing the makeshift log bridge takes on the broader implications of a spiritual leap of faith in trusting God to help her find her way though she is—if only temporarily—blind. Every obstacle and hindrance that Phoenix overcomes on her way to her destination likewise takes on greater significance as representations of the obstacles that everyone faces as they blaze a trail across the worn path that trails behind their own life.
From what point of view is “A Worn Path” told, why was it chosen and how can a reader tell?
The literary point of view at work here is what is known as third-person limited perspective. Such a point of view facilitates the reader's developing of empathy for Phoenix because it is through her consciousness that all the events and discourse with other characters take place. The use of perspectives that provided less insight into the mind of Phoenix or expanded the point of view to allow the events to be seen through the eyes of additional characters would result in a far different tone. At the same time, however, by choosing not to delve without limitations into the mind of Phoenix, the limited third person experience also allows the reader to experience the journey of Phoenix along that worn path from just enough distance that it becomes possible to see her in the ways that other characters see her.
What is the significance of the unseen character of Phoenix’s sick grandson?
The fact that the grandson is never seen, only referred to and not a direct actor in the narrative is actually quite significant. The very fact that he stands in direct contrast to the protagonist of the story relative to his tender age versus her advanced seniority indicates that he is symbolic of the future. Extrapolating from the text that the overarching theme of the story is the effect of race relations, a strong argument can be made that the grandson represents not just the future, but the future for blacks in America. That he is an unseen character suggests that the future of race relations also remains unclear and uncertain.
What does the ending of the story imply?
The ending of “A Worn Path” can seem ambiguous at best and anticlimactic at worst. The nod, the turn and the carefully stepping down the stairs on Phoenix's way out, however, are actually of incredible significance and import. Again, individually, these actions may not count for much, but collectively they represent the commencement of yet another struggle that lies ahead for Phoenix and—by extension—blacks living in America. The utter lack of any sort of Aristotelian cathartic resolution is, in reality, far from ambiguous, but the lack of a satisfying climax speaks volumes. No sooner has Phoenix successfully completed one task that proved to be far more difficult and time-consuming that it should have been than she is forced to set upon the another arduous journey to complete another minor task that should not be so difficult: buying her grandson the paper windmill he desires. Such is the hardship of not just one individual, but an entire culture. On the other hand, it is possible to see that Phoenix has succeeded in navigating the human world and is heading back into the nonhuman world, where her medicine will bring life to her grandson. She is figuratively heading North to a sort of freedom that is reminiscent of slaves in slaves narratives heading North to escape bondage.