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In Eudora Welty’s short story, “A Worn Path,” an African American woman named Phoenix Jackson travels into town for her beloved grandson. Set within the Christmas season in Southern Mississippi during the reconstruction era, the author shows the hard years of racism and prejudice that continued to persist since the emancipation proclamation in 1865.
In the beginning, Phoenix is walking through a dark pine forest, and as she continues down the path, she is faced with many obstructions. She makes her way slowly to the top of a hill, and her attention is immediately directed to a thorny bush that has grabbed ahold of her dark striped dress. As she pulls herself free and makes her way down, she crosses a creek and rests momentarily, and as she does so, she envisions a small boy bringing her a slice of marble cake.
She replies to the small boy’s gesture that “that would be acceptable,” which is her way of showing racial tension, as marble cake is a mix of vanilla and chocolate fused together, contrasting her wish for integration of blacks and whites for equality.
Later on in the story, she is approached and stumped by a black dog who came out from a nearby ditch. As she tries to protect herself by hitting it with her cane, she stumbles into the ditch. As she lays there, she snaps and condescendingly addresses herself as an ‘old woman,’ which the author uses to enhance the fact that she is old, alone, and that her circumstances are difficult.
Sitting in the ditch, Phoenix is rescued by “a hunter, a young man, with his dog on a chain” (Welty ). He first addresses her as ‘Granny,’ and asks what she is doing. As she reaches out her hand for assistance, she explains that “lying on my back like a June bug waiting to be turn over, mister” (Welty). She chooses to address herself as a ‘June bug’ to exaggerate once again how her age and physique deem her too helpless and weak to get out herself.
The young hunter extends his arms to help her, and she thanks him for his trouble. He begins to initiate conversation, and asks if she is on her way home, and is shocked in disbelief when she replies that she is going to town. He says “that’s as far as I walk when I come out myself, and I get something for my trouble,” where the author implies that the hunter assumes that she has no reason for going into town. However, Phoenix immediately asserts herself by saying “I bound to go to town mister, the time come around.” As she tells him that there is a reason for the journey that she is making, again, the hunter mocks her, and assumes that “[she] wouldn’t miss going to town to see Santa Claus!” At this point, the author proposes that Phoenix is not amused at his comment, as “the deep lines in her face went into a fierce and different tradition.”
While this was going down, Phoenix just so happened to catch a glimpse of a nickel falling out of the hunter’s pocket, and onto the ground, and in the distance the sound of two dogs fighting could be heard. The hunter decided to run off towards them, and see what all the commotion was about. In the meantime, Phoenix slowly leaned forward to collect the fallen nickel, and pocket it in her apron. Once the hunter comes back with his own dog, he lifts his gun, and points it at her. At first, Phoenix assumes that he had seen her reach for the nickel, but the hunter surprisingly asks, “doesn’t the gun scare you?” to which she replies, “no, sir, I seen plenty go off closer by, in my day, and for less than what I done.” The author does not express if the hunter did see her take the money or not, but she believes that he did. However she is not scared of his gun, because she has seen many of her own killed before her eyes. The hunter then lowers his gun, and boldly says, “well, Granny, you must be a hundred years old, and scared of nothing. I’d give you a dime if I had any money with me.” She knows he has lied, because he at least had a nickel which she pocketed, and goes her way. The hunter, initially a hero to Phoenix, turns out to be violent, racist, and a liar. He degrades her to an old woman by calling her ‘granny’, points a gun towards her just because he has the privilege and dominance to do so.
Finally Phoenix arrives in the city, and walks along the paved city streets when she realizes that it is Christmas time. She sees lights decorated along the streets in colors of green and red, while trusting the knowledge of her feet of where to take her. She sees a “nice lady” walking by, who's carrying presents for her family, and she asks if she would be able to tie her shoes for her. The woman arrogantly adds “stand still then,” but sets aside her gifts, and ties both of her shoes with care. This woman represents a world which Phoenix does not live in. Filled with presents, and the city life. While knowing Phoenix is an outsider, the woman does not care to question her purpose, but acknowledges her as a true person.
Next, the author shows Phoenix facing a document mounted to a wall which is described as a “gold seal and is framed in the gold frame which matched the dream that was hung up in her head,” where Phoenix immediately said to herself “here I be.” The author includes this mounted document, and self evaluation to represent a diploma, which is something that Phoenix was never able to obtain, possibly from her poverty or enslavement, and to remind her of her place in society.
While Phoenix continues to admire her dreams mounted on the wall, an attendant at the receptionist's desk asks her what her business here is. The attendant begins to get frustrated with Phoenix when she does not respond right away. A nurse then comes in, and recognizes “old Aunt Phoenix,” as she is working closely with her grandson. The nurse begins to ask questions regarding his health, but Phoenix remains silent. A few moments later, Phoenix gathers herself together, and explains that she had forgotten why she had come all the way to the hospital. “My grandson. It was my memory had left me. There I sat and forgot why I made my long trip.” “An old woman without an education. It was my memory fail me.” The nurse did not acknowledge her efforts for her trip from Old Natchez Trace back in the countryside, and began to ask about her grandson’s throat. Phoenix replied that he is not able to swallow, but “he going to last… I not going to forget him again, no.”
The nurse was starting to get tired of Phoenix’s chatter, and brought her the medicine for her grandson with the word ‘charity’ written over the bag. As Phoenix started to leave, the attendant stopped her, and offered to give Phoenix a few pennies, which she said, “five pennies is a nickel.” As the attendant gives her a nickel as charity, and not out of kindness, Phoenix “carefully” accepts the coin. From these instances we understand that Phoenix is both proud and clever, thinking highly of herself, but not above getting the money and medicine she needs through whatever means she can, while also being aware of the potential debasement and dangers of her position. Money becomes a tool of empowerment for Phoenix, even as the stealing, and the charity suggest a separation of classes. That she then uses the money, not to buy the bare necessities, but rather for a relatively luxurious–and certainly delicate–paper windmill that will show her grandson the wonders of the world, suggests her hope of what the future holds, and the way that having hope fuels her will to go on, but also the fragility of achieving those hopes in a world of unyielding racial and class divisions.
Some could argue that the author writes this encounter with both the attendant and nurse to show that Phoenix was dishonoring her authorities in the last interaction provided in the story. Phoenix puts the coins next to each other–one from the hunter, and one from the attendant in her palms, taps her cane on the floor, and declares that she is going to buy a paper windmill for her grandson. This is a verbal declaration of her intention for the long journey, and also that by buying her grandson a paper windmill that he may hopefully be able to have a greater journey than she–in education. Instead of spending the money on herself, she exhibits selfless character as she wants to buy something for her grandson. Phoenix gladly raises her “free arm,” and thinks of the present she will buy her grandson–the paper windmill. Her ‘free arm’ represents the long journey to freedom from slavery, and her grandson is a symbol of a prospective future, and a better life.
All in all, the short story "A Worn Path" exemplifies the issues that surrounded black slavery, although there are still millions enslaved people today. This story shows a small glimpse of the different ways people, specifically African Americans were treated over two-hundred years ago-and still now. Throughout the story, Phoenix is never addressed by her first name, not even from herself. Instead she is addressed from her physical state, capabilities, and the black woman that she is. Phoenix represents the lack of opportunities that were available to black women–education and equality–and the active effects of poverty and racism that continued from slavery. But more importantly, although aware of her skin and social class, Phoenix hopes for a greater future, and so do I.