It is a bright but cold morning in December when an old woman named Phoenix Jackson sets out along a worn path she knows well. Armed with a cane in her hand and red rag to keep her head warm, she sways side to side a bit as she walks in the still air. Her shoelaces are untied but she does not trip, even as she keeps her eyes in front of her. Her skin is a “golden color” and covered with “numberless branching wrinkles.”
When there is movement in thick vegetation lining the path, she vocally threatens the mysterious animals who may be living there and steadfastly refuses to push back or pull up. When the path starts to run uphill, Phoenix complains that it feels as chains are around her feet, but still she presses on. Once she reaches the top of the hill she rests only a moment to look at what is spread out before her. A thorny bush catches her dress, but she finds the strength to pull herself free and keep up her momentum.
When she reaches the bottom of the hill, she is forced to make her way over a creek by inching across a fallen log. Once on the other side, she finally takes a moment to rest. As she does, she imagines she sees a small boy appearing before her holding a slice of marble-cake on a plate. Upon reaching for the cake, however, all she grasps is air, and the boy is no longer there.
Setting off once again, Phoenix soon encounters another obstruction: a fence of barbed wire under which she must crawl on her hands and knees. Once on the other side, she makes her way through a cornfield complete with buzzards and a scarecrow. Next comes a ravine where she stops to take a sip of water from a spring.
Then it is through a swampy area and a long stretch of road on which she encounters a threatening black dog. When the dog comes at her, she gives it a snap of the cane but falls over in turn. A white man—a hunter—helps her from the spill she took into the ditch. He starts out nicely by asking her if she all right and then asks where she is going. When she answers that she is headed into town, he laughs that “colored people” never want to miss “going to town to see Santa Claus.”
During their conversation, Phoenix notices that a nickel falls out of his pocket but the man does not notice. She manages to take it when he is distracted by his dog, and slips it into her apron pocket. His last words are warning her to go back home and stay out of harm, but she is determined to fulfill her mission.
Phoenix finally arrives at the city of Natchez, Mississippi. It is festooned with Christmas decorations and lights. She sees a white woman in the street carrying Christmas presents, and asks her if she will tie her shoelaces for her. The woman assents.
Phoenix enters a building and goes up to a woman seated at a desk, who assumes that Phoenix is another charity case. When asked why she is here, Phoenix does not respond, leading the attendant to rudely question if she is deaf. A nurse appears, who recognizes Phoenix and informs the attendant that she is there to get medicine for her grandson who swallowed lye a few years earlier. When the nurse inquires if the medicine the doctor gave did anything to improve the condition of her grandson’s throat and Phoenix once again does not reply, the nurse complains that she is wasting their valuable time. As if waking from a dream, Phoenix apologizes for a temporary loss of memory. She informs the nurse that her grandson’s throat closes up on occasion and he has trouble swallowing. For this reason, more medicine is required. When the nurse brings her another bottle of medicine, she hands it over and says “Charity” before checking her accounts book.
The attendant hands Phoenix a nickel as a Christmas gift. The old woman takes it and then removes the nickel she put into her apron after the white hunter dropped it. Holding them both in her hand, Phoenix announces she is going to use the ten cents to buy a paper windmill as a Christmas present for her grandson. Then, with a nod, she leaves.
“A Worn Path” is one of Welty’s most famous short stories. Much of its appeal lies in that it appears to be a simple story—an elderly woman travels through the forest to a city where she can get medicine for her ailing grandson—but that simplicity is belied by deeper themes of race, myth, religion, and life and death. There have been many critical interpretations of the story in the eighty or so years since its publication, and we will consider some of those here.
First, it offers a masterful lesson in the art of literary point of view. Not just any literary point of view, either, but the one that probably is the most difficult for readers to identify. That perspective is technically known as limited omniscience. Welty takes the reader into the mind of her powerfully conceived central figure, Phoenix, in a way that allows the reader to fully inhabit the mind of this person at certain time and place, but what is real and what is only imagined commingle. The fusing of fantasy and reality is absolutely essential for the story, because Welty wants to endow a quotidian event —a walk by an old woman to see a doctor—with far more mythic properties. Phoenix’s name is key here, for the phoenix is an Egyptian mythological creature—a bird who lived for an immensely long time, burst into flame, and was reborn from its ashes. It is thus an ancient symbol of rebirth, of perseverance.
Welty could simply have had Phoenix tell her story using first-person perspective, of course, but that would present two obstacles. First, a story in which a person is relating the strange and unusual encounters such as Phoenix experiences would likely be viewed as less mythic than mentally disturbed. Secondly, were Phoenix narrating the events in her own voice, imagery such as “With her hands on her knees, the old woman waited, silent, erect and motionless, just as if she were in armor” would have had to be jettisoned. Phoenix would certainly not talk using such lofty language and it is equally doubtful she would write that way. Therefore, Welty had to find a way both to take the reader inside the mind of a person significantly less educated than herself while not limiting her own ability to write about that person in a way reflective of that intelligence.
It is Welty’s literary intelligence that transforms “A Worn Path” into a powerful lesson in the art of limited omniscience. The simple construction of the information that “a bush caught her dress” immediately situates the reader into scene from Phoenix’s perspective. The verb choice here personifies the bush; more than making it human, it also indicates intent. This trip through nature is not going to be just any sort of walk; the natural world wants to tell this woman something on this day. Welty also manipulates language to allow fantasy and reality to intrude upon the old woman’s journey without making any clear distinction. For instance, Welty presents the information that “a little boy brought her a plate with a slice of marble cake on it” in exactly the same manner that as her self-extrication from the bush. The scarecrow looms menacingly in the shadows in real time for both Phoenix and the reader. While still maintaining the narrative logic of allowing for figurative language beyond Phoenix’s capacity, the reader also sees things through Phoenix’s eyes.
As Phoenix is journeying on a wilderness path with many obstacles, it is unsurprising that critics have focused on the story’s allegorical, religious, mythological, and historical connections. One interpretation is that Phoenix’s quest is in line with Christianity. There are allusions to Eden (the snakes), the parting of the Red Sea (the corn field), the River Jordan and the City of Heaven (Natchez), and the Christ-child in the manger (her grandson with his “sweet look” and his mouth like “a little bird”). At the end of the story Phoenix procures life-giving medicine and saves her grandson; she is often seen as Moses, who paved the way for Christ.
Other critics look at Phoenix’s connection with nature. As she perambulates the path, she talks frankly to the animals and plants in her path as if she knows them. She does not evince fear or hostility; when thorns catch her, she simply says, “Thorns, you doing your appointed work. Never want to let folks pass—no, sir,” and the narrator assures us, “It was not possible to allow the dress to tear.” The dog startles her, but is not otherwise aggressive. She makes it over a log, through a maze, and through a swamp. James Robert Saunders points out that “once she arrives at the log, a bridge that nature has provided, she can ‘march’ across without even looking until she has reached the other side. On she marches through some areas that have no path at all . . . ”
While it is common to associate women, especially African American women, with nature, ecofeminist theorists caution against this reductiveness. In particular, Mae Miller-Claxton explains that while Phoenix does indeed have a connection to nature that allows her a wisdom and knowledge other characters do not possess, she is absolutely rooted in her time and place as a black woman in Jim Crow Mississippi. On the first point, Phoenix traverses a path that is an interstitial place between nature and civilization. She comfortably coexists with nature and “displays an awareness that the natural world was here long before her birth and will continue long afterward.” However, as she gets closer to Natchez—the human world, the world dominated by a system of racial hierarchy and violence—things become more problematic. She passes a barbed-wire fence under which she has to “creep and crawl.” She then sees one of the most ominous images in the story: “Big dead trees, like black men with one arm, were standing in the purple stalks of the withered cotton field. There sat a buzzard.” The buzzard is a clear symbol of death, which is heightened by the fact this is a cotton field—a field where slaves and sharecroppers toiled. The image of the “black men with one arm” is associated with lynching, a common act of racial violence in the South during the Jim Crow era. Claxton provides statistics showing that from 1882-1968, 539 black people were lynched, with more deaths probably going unrecorded. Phoenix “would have lived in an environment of fear, where the beautiful pastoral landscape could be the setting for a grim purpose.” This is not an Eden, but a place where real terrors and dangers exist for black people.
The most conspicuous danger for Phoenix is, of course, the white hunter. Welty specifically identifies his race and almost immediately, though the young man helps her out of the ditch, there is a palpable sense of tension. He tells her in a friendly authoritative and stern manner that it’s “too far” for her to go to town, and says, “Now you go on home, Granny!” When she says she can’t, he dismisses her with a demeaning comment: “I know you old colored people! Wouldn’t miss going to town to see Santa Claus!” The hunter’s gun is present throughout the entire scene as a symbol of his power and ability to deal death to both the bobwhites and herself. After he tries to get his dog to attack the other dog in a metonymic display of strength, he turns the gun on Phoenix and asks if the gun scares her. She holds “utterly still” and says she’s “seen plenty go off closer by, in my day, and for less than what I done.” With that, the hunter shoulders his gun but still sees fit to give her his “advice” that she ought to stay home. As she’s not a slave and he’s not a master, there’s nothing he can do to force her go home, but he’s clearly in a position of power nonetheless. Welty makes it clear that the hunter is a threat to Phoenix and the nonhuman world, but Phoenix still gets a tiny edge on him by observing a nickel fall from his pocket (he’ll later lie to her and say he has no money). When the dogs scuffle, Phoenix reaches down and lifts up the piece of money “with the grace and care they would have in lifting an egg from under a setting hen.” She wonders if God is watching and if she “come to stealing,” but it actually seems like a divinely-ordained; if Phoenix is as old as she is and her eyes are “blue with age,” how could she have seen that nickel fall out?
Phoenix reaches Natchez, which Claxton informs us is a “symbol of American pioneerism and Manifest Destiny” as well as the “apotheosis of King Cotton” before the Civil War. Welty would have known Natchez as a place of oppression and discrimination, which is why things starkly shift for Phoenix when she comes to the town. She is not part of the consumerism of the town, as signified by the woman in the streets with her presents. She does not have the education that the diploma in the doctor’s office indicates; as Claxton says, “It is a tangible sign of education that gives his knowledge more credibility than her knowledge acquired through years or living far from a town or city—knowledge of what kind of water to drink and the trees and animals in her world.” Now that she is standing before the attendant, her voice, which was so strong with the animals and fields and thorns, falters. Both the nurse and the attendant just see her as a check mark, as charity. As Elaine Orr writes, “as a charity case, she loses all agency, all fluidity. She is no longer the graceful writer of her path.” She cannot reply to the attendant and nurse’s questions, which critics have interpreted as senility, self-consciousness, or a bit of slipperiness and deviance in forcing the women to work harder to get answers out of her. However, Phoenix does make it through the human world just as she did the nonhuman one. She has persevered to get her beloved grandfather the medicine he needs, and she has also managed to get another nickel out of the attendant.
Kevin Moberly also looks at “A Worn Path” through the lens of slavery and the slave narrative tradition. There are several things in the story that bear this comparison out. First, there is the diploma, which instead of being important as an indicator of difference, could symbolize “the physical proof of a slave’s freedom, a certificate of manumission. Moreover, the diploma symbolizes the hope of education and literacy.” Second, Moberly explains how, yes, Phoenix is heading south, not north, and “to successive stages of bondage,” but at the end she is “imagining herself following the North Star home to her grandson, holding it out in front of her as she effectively retraces and reverses the course of her journey South.”
To conclude, critic Roland Bartel propounds a theory that fascinated many readers and other critics: that the grandson is actually dead. He states that Phoenix’s journey is a “psychological necessity,” and “her only way of coping with her loss and her isolation.” Her journey is a “ritual that symbolically brings her grandson back to life.” Bartel’s evidence for this comes from several places in the story: the vision of the young boy offering her cake may indicate her vanished grandson; her blaming of her lapse of memory in the doctor’s office on her illiteracy is unconvincing, and it would make more sense if she had trouble articulating why she was there if her grandson was dead; her comment about not forgetting her grandson (“I not going to forget him again, no, the whole enduring time”); the going down the stairway at the end of the story suggests a Dantean descent into hell, and the ascent and descent “[strengthen] the thematic unity and symmetry of the story by beginning and ending with references to death.” Bartel says Phoenix ultimately invents this fiction of her grandson still being alive to “make the last portion of her life bearable.” Welty was asked about the grandson being dead numerous times, and responded somewhat elliptically, “the grandson’s plight was real and it made the truth of the story, which is the story of an errand of love carried out. If the child no longer lived, the truth would persist in the wornness of the path. But his being dead can’t increase the truth of the story, can’t affect it one way or the other. I think I signal this, because the end of the story has been reached before old Phoenix gets home again: she simply starts back. To the question ‘Is the grandson really dead?’ I could reply that it doesn’t make any difference. I could also say that I did not make him in in order to let him play a trick on Phoenix. But my best answer would be: ‘Phoenix is alive.’”