"Yes. Swallowed lye. When was ut?—January—two—three years ago—"
For the modern reader, the grandson's illness probably seems very foreign, but Welty's choice of lye poisoning was not at all haphazard or insignificant. According to critic Melissa Deakins Strang, lye was a commonplace household item among poor people in the South. It was used to make soap, and while if swallowed it was not fatal, it would damage the esophageal lining. Children would accidentally come across it and need attention even up until the 1930s, according to medical records. One statistic stated that over 60% of the patients were black, which Stang notes is no doubt the case because of the high levels of poverty among Southern blacks, from "a lack of both education and information on the dangers of lye poisoning." By choosing lye as the reason for the grandson's illness, Welty thus further solidifies the racial and class divide of the South that we've already seen in the short story up to this point.
"Speak up, Grandma," the woman said. "What's your name? We must have your history, you know."
The attendant and the nurse are both rather brusque with Phoenix, the former more so than the latter. She immediately draws a conclusion about what Phoenix is doing there—"A charity case, I suppose"—and speaks to her as if exasperated. In the quote above, the attendant's tone is apparent, and she goes on to raise her voice and ask if Phoenix is deaf. At the end she offers Phoenix charity in the form of a "few pennies" (actually giving her a nickel when Phoenix asks). The nurse is a bit more sympathetic because she knows who Phoenix is and what she's doing, but she still sounds somewhat annoyed as Phoenix refuses to respond to her questions. Both of these white women demonstrate how class and race play out even in the smallest interactions between people in the Jim Crow South. They talk to Phoenix like she is dumb, and casually dismiss her arduous and heroic journey.
"Please, missy, will you lace up my shoe?" She held up her foot.
This is a puzzling moment in the text. Phoenix, newly arrived in town, asks a white woman carrying presents to tie her shoe. Are we really to believe that she cannot do this herself, that she cannot sit on a bench and take care of this? The woman acquiesces to Phoenix's request, but she's a bit brusque about it. She calls Phoenix "Grandma" twice, and tells her to "Stand still" as if she was a child. Critic Kevin Moberly notes that with her presents and strong perfume, "she embodies the material excess of the town," and overall "the exchange is hardly equal, willing, or reciprocal."
At last there came a flicker and then a flame of comprehension across her face, and she spoke.
"My grandson. It was my memory had left me. There I sat and forgot why I made my long trip."
"Forgot?" The nurse frowned. "After you came so far?"
Why is Phoenix unable to answer the women's questions when she is in the doctor's office? She blames her lack of education and says she "forgot," but there are other possibilities for this strange behavior beyond the fact that she is not educated or that she is very old and somewhat senile. Firstly, she never behaves in that fashion in the earlier parts of her journey. In these parts, she is confident, dexterous enough, and awake and aware. Roland Bartel suggests she does not say anything at first because her grandson is actually dead and this journey is more for herself, so when she stays silent, it is evidence of "her inability to articulate her subconscious motives for her journey." Elaine Orr sees her silence as "self-consciousness—Phoenix's self-conscious resistance to the erasure of her subjectivity." Yet it could also be "deviant" because Phoenix is provoking the women, who want her to "stay with the frayed script of black/white (also self/other) relations with which both are familiar."
Without warning, she had seen with her own eyes a flashing nickel fall out of the man's pocket onto the ground.
This is also a strange and compelling moment, for up until this point Phoenix's age and frailty have been emphasized. Yet here she is, catching the exact second this coin falls out of the man's pocket. She pockets it when he's distracted, and even though she feels a twinge of guilt, she ultimately comes to terms with her action. It is even validated further when the man lies to her about having money. This scene is mirrored by the scene at the end where the attendant offers Phoenix a "few pennies" but she says "stiffly" that "five pennies are a nickel" and manages to walk away with ten cents from the two white people who were most threatening or rude to her. Elaine Orr sees the scene with the attendant as one in which Phoenix refuses to stay in her place, and similar to the scene with the hunter in "her subversion of his authority."
A Worn Path Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for A Worn Path is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Note, Phoenix is an old woman. Her journey consists of traversing the landscape, avoiding animals, walking uphill, crossing the creek on a log, crawling under barbed wire, and an attack by a dog. This would be a difficult journey for a younger...