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A Worn Path
By Eudora Welty (1909-2002) 
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Setting and Characters
Point of View
Plot Summary
Climax
Themes
Humor
Figures of Speech
Glossary of Terms
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Biography of Welty
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2011
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Type of Work and Publication Year

......."A Worn Path" is a short story about a very old black woman who perseveres heroically in difficult circumstances. The Atlantic Monthly first published the story in February 1941.

Setting

.......The action takes place in December, circa 1940, in southwestern Mississippi. The scene begins in the the wilderness and then shifts to the city of Natchez. 

Characters

Phoenix Jackson: Very old black woman with poor eyesight who walks a long distance through wilderness and fields to obtain medicine for her grandchild. She is the main character.
White Hunter: Man who helps Phoenix to her feet after she falls into a ditch.
Black Children: Children Phoenix encounters just before she reaches Natchez.
Natchez Pedestrian: Woman who ties Phoenix's shoes.
Attendant: Receptionist in a physician's office.
Nurse: Physician's nurse, who gives Phoenix medicine for her grandchild.
Grandson of Phoenix: Child who once swallowed lye. He requires medicine to treat his throat.

Point of View

.......Eudora Welty presents the story in third-person point of view. She reveals the thoughts of the main character, Phoenix Jackson, in dialogue in which Phoenix talks to herself. The author also sometimes reveals the activity of Phoenix's mind in the narration, as in the following passage: "Down there, her senses drifted away. A dream visited her, and she reached her hand up, but nothing reached down and gave her a pull." 

Plot Summary

..............Source

Welty, Eudora. "A Worn Path." Literature and the Writing Process. 5th ed. McMahan, Elizabeth; Susan X Day, and Robert Fund, eds. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: ..........Prentice Hall, 1999. Pages 363-368.
.......Early on a cold December morning, an old Negro woman taps along with her cane on a path through a pine forest. Phoenix Jackson is her name. Around her head is a red rag. Her dress—partly covered by a long apron—reaches down to the tops of her unlaced shoes. 
.......When there is movement in the underbrush, she says, “Out of my way, all you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons and wild animals! ... Keep out from under these feet, little bob-whites ... Keep the big wild hogs out of my path.”
.......After she reaches the top of a hill, she looks around to see where she has been and says, “Up through the pines. Now down through the oaks". On the way down the hill, a bush with thorns catches her dress.
......."Thorns, you doing your appointed work,” she says. “Never want to let folks pass—no, sir. Old eyes thought you was a pretty little green bush.” 
.......After struggling a moment, she frees her dress and moves on. At the bottom of the hill, she gingerly walks across a log over a creek. Upon reaching the other side, she says, “I wasn't as old as I thought.” Even so, she has to sit on a bank to rest. When a little boy appears before her with some cake on a plate, she reaches for the delectable, but there is nothing there.
.......When she resumes her journey, she must get down on her hands and knees and crawl under a barbed-wire fence, taking great care not to tear her dress. Moreover, the narrator says, “she could not pay for having her arm or her leg sawed off if she got caught fast where she was.”
.......After reaching the other side, she resumes her journey across a cornfield with dead stalks. She sees a buzzard.
.......“Who you watching?” she say.
.......She's happy that no bulls are around and that “the good Lord made his snakes to curl up and sleep in the winter.”
.......She then enters a cotton field with dead stalks and passes a scarecrow. Finally, she arrives at a wagon track, where it is easy to walk. In a ravine, she stops at a spring to take a drink, then resumes her journey. While crossing, a swampy patch, she says, “Sleep on, alligators, and blow your bubbles.” After walking past oaks in a dark stretch of road, she encounters a large black dog. He comes at her. When she hits him lightly with her cane, she falls into a ditch. A young hunter, a white man, happens upon her with a dog on a chain. He lifts her out of the ditch and asks whether she is all right. She says yes; the dead weeds broke her fall. He also asks where she is going. When she replies that she is going to town, he says, “Why, that's too far! That's as far as I walk when I come out myself.”
.......But she says she has to get to town. He laughs and says, “I know you old colored people! Wouldn't miss going to town to see Santa Claus!”
.......While she is talking with him, she notices a nickel fall to the ground from his pocket. The two dogs begin to fight. While he is busy getting rid of the black dog, Phoenix stoops down, picks up the nickel, and puts it in her apron pocket. The black dog runs off, and the man turns back to Phoenix and, remarking that she must be a hundred years old, advises her to stay home and out of harm's way. But she says she “is bound to go on my way.” They then part company.
.......Soon she sees steeples and cabins and many black children. Natchez lies ahead. When she enters the city, decorated with strings of electric lights, she stops a woman carrying wrapped packages and asks her to tie her shoes so that she will look right in the city. The woman accommodates her. She thanks the lady, then walks up the street and enters a building. She climbs many stairs and finally enters a door. Inside, a woman behind a desk says, “A charity case, I suppose.”
.......The woman tells Phoenix she must give her name and history. 
.......“What seems to be the trouble with you?” she says.
.......Phoenix does not respond.
.......“Are you deaf?” the attendant says.
.......A nurse comes in who knows Phoenix. The nurse informs the attendant that Phoenix visits the office on behalf of her grandson, not herself. After Phoenix sits down, the nurse asks about the condition of boy, who had swallowed lye several years before. Phoenix does not reply. The nurse asks whether the child's throat improved after Phoenix gave him the medicine from the doctor. When Phoenix remains silent, the nurse says, “You mustn't take up our time this way.”
.......Finally, Phoenix explains that she had momentarily lost her memory. As to the condition of the boy, she says his throat closes up every now and then, making it difficult for him to swallow. Consequently, she says, she needs more medicine from the doctor. The boy is now alone in the house waiting for it. The nurse brings her a bottle of the medicine.
.......“Charity,” she says, checking a space in a book.
.......The attendant gives her a nickel from her pocketbook as a Christmas gift. After Phoenix accepts it, she takes the other nickel from her apron pocket and holds both of them in her hand, saying she is going to buy a paper windmill for her grandson. Then she goes out the door and down the stairs.
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Climax

.......The climax occurs when Phoenix recovers from a memory lapse and discusses her grandson's condition with the nurse. At this time, the reader understands the purpose of her journey to Natchez and that she regularly makes this journey out of love for the child. 

Themes

Love

.......Though quite old and suffering from infirmities, Phoenix Jackson regularly walks a long distance to obtain medicine for her grandchild. Even in cold weather, when the frozen earth is slippery, she makes the trip. Her journey—the worn path she follows—demonstrates her love for the child.

Perseverance

.......Phoenix Jackson's walk to Natchez demonstrates her will to persevere in a sometimes hostile world. On her way to Natchez, she must endure the cold, keep her footing on frozen ground, crawl under a barbed-wire fence, walk through the maze of a cornfield, and watch out for dangerous animals such as wild hogs. An unfriendly dog threatens her and she falls into a ditch.  But her occasional journey to Natchez is only a small part of her story. Every day, she must deal with poverty and the pains of old age, care for a child with a scarred throat, and confront the evil of racial prejudice—a fact of life in Mississippi and elsewhere in the U.S. 

Racial Prejudice

.......Phoenix Jackson must endure racial prejudice as part of her everyday life. The story does not explicitly focus on this theme, but it does include it. Consider that the white hunter refers to her condescendingly as Granny. The narrator does not reveal the race of the shopper, the attendant, and the nurse. However, they are likely white, for they also treat her condescendingly. The shopper calls her Grandma, and the nurse calls her Aunt Phoenix. It is interesting to note, though, that the people she encounters do treat her with a modicum of respect and kindness—a sign perhaps that America is making gradual progress in race relations. But not until the civil-rights movement of the fifties, sixties, and seventies did blacks gain all their rights under the law.

Redemption

.......Phoenix Jackson is a Christlike figure, providing opportunities for others to do good deeds that will help to redeem their souls. For example, after attempting to drive off the black dog, Phoenix falls into a ditch. Along comes a white hunter. He helps her out of the ditch, just as Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus to stay on his feet under the weight of the cross. In Natchez, Phoenix asks a woman carrying wrapped Christmas presents to tie her shoes. The woman puts the packages down and complies. In the doctor's office, the attendant treats Phoenix rudely but ends up giving her a nickel as a Christmas present. (A nickel could buy much more in 1940 than it can today.) 

Humor

.......Phoenix Jackson's humorous remarks to herself, animals, and nature help keep the story moving briskly. The following passage contains examples:

.......At last she was safe through the fence and risen up out in the clearing. Big dead trees, like black men with one arm, were standing in the purple stalks of the withered cotton field. There sat a buzzard.
.......'Who you watching?'
.......In the furrow she made her way along.
......."Glad this not the season for bulls," she said, looking sideways, "and the good Lord made his snakes to curl up and sleep in the winter. A pleasure I don't see no two-headed snake coming around that tree, where it come once. It took a while to get by him, back in the summer."
Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the story. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.

Alliteration

where the wind rocked
Lifting her skirt, leveling her cane fiercely before her like a festival figure in some parade, she began to march across.
There she had to creep and crawl
Then she smelled wood smoke, and smelled the river, and she saw a steeple and the cabins on their steep steps. 
Then Phoenix was like an old woman begging a dignified forgiveness for waking up frightened in the night. 
Metaphor
A bird flew by. Her lips moved. "God watching me the whole time. I come to stealing."
Comparison of a bird to the watchfulness of God

At last there came a flicker and then a flame of comprehension across her face, and she spoke.
Comparison of comprehension to a flicker and a flame

Simile
This (tapping of the cane) made a grave and persistent noise in the still air that seemed meditative, like the chirping of a solitary little bird.
Comparison of the noise made by the cane to the chirping of a bird

Her skin had a pattern all its own of numberless branching wrinkles and as though a whole little tree stood in the middle of her forehead. . . .
Comparison of the branching wrinkles to the branching limbs of a tree

Under her small black-freckled hand her cane, limber as a buggy whip, would switch at the brush.
Comparison of the limberness of her cane to that of a whip

Big dead trees, like black men with one arm, were standing in the purple stalks of the withered cotton field.
Comparison of the trees to black me

The track crossed a swampy part where the moss hung as white as lace from every limb.
Comparison of the moss to lace

The shadows hung from the oak trees to the road like curtains.
Comparison of the shadows to curtains

He wear a little patch-quilt and peep out, holding his mouth open like a little bird. 
Comparison of the boy to a bird
 

Terms and Symbols

Big dead trees: Perhaps a symbol of black men from the slavery era. Phoenix encounters these trees after crawling under a barbed-wire fence. The narrator says of the scene, "Big dead trees, like black men with one arm, were standing in the purple stalks of the withered cotton field." 
cake: Perhaps a symbol of the unfulfilled promises made to black Americans struggling for equality with whites. The story says, "[W]hen a little boy brought her a plate with a slice of marble-cake on it she spoke to him. 'That would be acceptable.' But when she went to take it there was just her own hand in the air."
lye: Caustic solution used in soap and cleaning preparations.
bobwhite: North American quail.
mistletoe: Evergreen plant with white poisonous berries. It is perhaps a symbol of the attitude of whites toward blacks.
Natchez Trace: Overland trail between Nashville, Tennessee, and Natchez, Mississippi. In the early 1800s, it was a "worn path" that promoted progress.
Phoenix: In Egyptian mythology, the phoenix was a bird that lived five hundred years, then died in a fire after the sun ignited an Arabian tree on which the phoenix was perched. The tree was located near Heliopolis, Egypt. From the ashes, the phoenix rose to new life. Phoenix Jackson is like the mythical bird in that she rose from the ashes of the Civil War to lead a long long and apparently fruitful life. 
the Surrender: Confederate General Robert E. Lee's surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at the town of Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865. Lee's surrender officially ended the U.S. Civil War. 
thorn bush: Symbol of a peril that appears harmless. When a thorn bush snags Phoenix's dress, she says, "Thorns, you doing your appointed work. Never want to let folks pass—no, sir. Old eyes thought you was a pretty little green bush."
sweet gum: Tree of the witch hazel family. The trees yield an aromatic resin. 

Study Questions and Writing Topics

  • Find a passage in the story indicating that Phoenix Jackson was probably once a slave. 
  • Write an essay focusing on how Eudora Welty reveals the qualities of Phoenix through the words she speaks.
  • What do you most admire about Phoenix?
  • In your opinion, is the story pessimistic or optimistic?
  • Write an essay centering on the rights denied to African-Americans in the 1930s.
  • What do you think will happen to Phoenix's grandson after she dies?

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