“A Worn Path” by Eudora Welty is a suspenseful short story of a poor, elderly African American grandmother who annually made a dangerous and grueling trek from her home far away from the town of Natchez, Mississippi to the doctor’s office in town and back again to her remote home. She made this journey every year to pick up medicine for her grandson who she was caring for.
Though Welty doesn’t specifically state what is wrong with the boy, or confirm that he is still living, she gives us vivid details on the grandmother’s problematic journey into town and back. She describes the strong will and perseverance of this African American woman despite many obstacles that tried again and again to interrupt her journey. Welty sets the story in the remote forest of Natchez, Mississippi, a place she is very familiar with since it was where she grew up. I imagine she was familiar with the difficulties facing a majority of Americans during that era of the Great Depression. Obtaining food, household goods, as well as medicines was challenging for many during that time, especially for those who were very poor like “an old Negro woman” named Phoenix Jackson.
Old Phoenix Jackson’s journey is plagued with trouble from the time she leaves her tiny old home. Probably the most difficult problem to deal with is the fact that she is feeble and requires a cane to walk. She doesn’t have a proper cane, nor a walker to assist her. Instead, she has a homemade cane she made from an old umbrella. In her ragged clothes, her worn out shoes, and her head tied in a red rag, she sets out on her yearly journey during the Christmas holiday season to her grandson’s doctor. She has a sense of joy about her as she recalls the journey ahead of her and the familiarity of what it will bring. Though she knows it will be a difficult journey she never expresses even a thought of turning back or abandoning her intention. She exudes a spirit of determination and perseverance beyond measure. She admits that the journey is extremely difficult for her as it runs up and down the hills in the forest and through the briars that snag her clothes and slow her down. She refers to the difficult struggle up the hill when she says “Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far” (464). Though she is very old and forgets from time to time, she realizes her age has slowed her body and made it difficult to travel but her spirit never slows. She’s not afraid of the wild animals that she will likely face, the cold winter weather, not even of the white man who was hunting and his dog who startled her and made her fall into the ditch. During a time and place that racism is still high, she never showed any fear facing this white man and she did not let him deter her from her goal.
Welty adds an interesting moral dilemma when she tells about the nickel that fell out of the hunters pocket. It obviously catches old Phoenix’s eye and when the hunter takes off after another dog and someone. She takes the nickel from the ground and is contemplating the moral issue of whether to keep it or not when a bird flies close by her and she says, “God watching me the whole time. I come to stealing.” (467) She does not try to give it back to the hunter but you can’t help but feel it’s ok for her to keep it since he was trying to offer her help and encourage her to go back home where she would be safe yet he still lied to her and told her he had no money. Welty seems to compel her readers to have empathy for the old African American woman since she has made this difficult journey for someone she loves so dearly. This act of kindness and devotion for her grandson shows that this woman will not stop trying until she draws her last breath. Whether or not we disagree with Phoenix’s choice to keep the nickel, it is easy to forget any wrong doing from this courageous woman when she decides to take the nickel she picked up from the ground along with the nickel from the lady at the doctor’s office and buy a toy that will bring her grandson happiness. You can sense the joy Phoenix feels herself as she speaks of how happy the boy will be to receive it.
Not only does Phoenix face physical difficulties during her journey, she also faces the judgements and prejudices of people. She never once acknowledges that she is being treated unfairly. She simply holds her head up high and continues to pursue her plight. She does however humble herself by saying to the lady she asked to tie her shoe, “Thank you, missy. I doesn’t mind asking a nice lady to tie up my shoe, when I gets out on the street.” (467) She doesn’t get angry when the receptionist at the doctor yells at her nor when she calls her a “charity case” (468). Old Phoenix stands proud, strong, and confident in her purpose and her love for her grandson.
The story ends when Old Phoenix finally receives the medicine she set out to get for her grandson and begins on her journey back home in the dark. Blooms Literature refers to this story as a “Hero’s Journey”. It states: “Phoenix might be seen as the archetypal mother whose spirit remains undefeated even as she faces the hopelessness of her situation. Her path is worn not only because she has traveled it many times but also because it has been followed by countless self-sacrificing others. Yet Welty’s story of an archetypal mother who perseveres also has sociological significance. Set in the Jim Crow South, ‘The Worn Path’ portrays the struggles of women and African Americans who fight to survive in a world that denies them equality and humanity.” (“Worn Path and the Hero’s Journey”). While I can certainly agree with this idea, I still view the story as an encouraging story of strength, determination, and love inviting us to believe that love is enough to conquer any difficult situation.
- Welty, Eudora. “A Worn Path.” Compact Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing, edited by Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell, Cengage, 2017, pp. 463-471
- “Worn Path and the Hero’s Journey”. Blooms Literature. https://online.infobase.com/HR/Search/Print?assestld=9728&assetType=article