Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
of Work and Publication Year
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.
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.
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.
Woman who ties Phoenix's shoes.
in a physician's office.
nurse, who gives Phoenix medicine for her grandchild.
Grandson of Phoenix:
Child who once swallowed lye. He requires medicine to treat his throat.
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."
Eudora. "A Worn Path." Literature and the Writing Process. 5th ed.
McMahan, Elizabeth; Susan X Day, and Robert Fund, eds. Upper Saddle River,
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.
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."
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.
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."
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
on a plate, she reaches for the delectable, but there is nothing there.
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."
reaching the other side, she resumes her journey across a cornfield with
dead stalks. She sees a buzzard.
you watching?" she say.
happy that no bulls are around and that “the good Lord made his snakes
to curl up and sleep in the winter."
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."
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!"
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.
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."
woman tells Phoenix she must give her name and history.
seems to be the trouble with you?" she says.
does not respond.
you deaf?" the attendant says.
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."
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.
she says, checking a space in a book.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
Jackson's humorous remarks to herself, animals, and nature help keep the
story moving briskly. The following passage contains examples:
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.
the furrow she made her way along.
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."
are examples of figures of speech in the story. For definitions of figures
of speech, see Literary Terms.
the wind rocked
cane fiercely before her
a festival figure in some
parade, she began to march across.
There she had to creep
Then she smelled
wood smoke, and smelled
the river, and she saw a steeple
and the cabins on their steep steps.
like an old woman begging a dignified
up frightened in the night.
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
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
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
The shadows hung from the
oak trees to the road like curtains.
Comparison of the shadows
He wear a little patch-quilt
and peep out, holding his mouth open like a little bird.
Comparison of the boy
to a bird
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
plant with white poisonous berries. It is perhaps a symbol of the attitude
of whites toward blacks.
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
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.
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
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?