Howard is an avid short story reader who likes to help others find and understand stories.
Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path" was published in 1941. It has attracted a lot of attention and has been frequently anthologized.
The short story, just under 3,300 words, is of Phoenix Jackson's difficult journey through the Mississippi backcountry into the city.
This article starts with a summary then looks at themes, symbolism and the title.
Plot Summary of "A Worn Path"
On an early December morning, an old African-American woman, Phoenix Jackson, walks slowly through the forest. Her shoelaces are untied, and she taps the ground with a cane.
She calls out to the animals to stay out of her way, and hits the bushes with her cane. She follows the path up a hill and down the other side. Her dress gets caught on a bush.
She reaches a creek. A log serves as the bridge. She manages to cross it. She sits down on the bank to rest. She imagines a little boy offering her a piece of cake.
Phoenix continues through a barbed wire fence and across a field. She's glad there are no bulls out. She walks on through a corn field with stalks taller than she is. There's a ghostly figure that turns out to be a scarecrow.
She reaches a wagon track, which makes for easier travel. She passes fields, trees and cabins.
She stops for a drink in a ravine with a spring. The track goes into a declining road. The trees meet overhead, making it dark like a cave. A black dog comes out of the ditch and approaches her. Startled, she hits it lightly with her cane. She falls into the ditch.
She can't get up. Eventually, a young white man with a dog happens upon her. He's out hunting. He helps her up. He asks her a few questions and tells her to go home. While they talk, she sees a nickel fall out of his pocket. She comments on the black dog that surprised her.
The hunter sics his dog on it. The dogs fight. The hunter runs after them. There's a gunshot. Meanwhile, Phoenix picks up the nickel and puts it in her pocket.
The man comes back. He points his gun at Phoenix and asks if it scares her. She says no. He smiles and again advises her to go home. She says she has to go on.
They part ways. She hears the gun go off a few more times. She emerges from the tree-covered road into Natchez. There are green and red lights strung up in the city for Christmas.
A lady walks nearby with an armful of presents. Phoenix asks if she would lace up her shoes for her. Having them undone won't look right in the city. The lady obliges.
Phoenix enters a large building and announces herself. The attendant asks her some questions, but Phoenix doesn't answer. A nurse enters and recognizes her. She tells Phoenix to sit down. She asks if the medicine has helped her grandson's throat. Phoenix just stares straight ahead without answering.
Phoenix snaps out of her reverie. She had forgotten the purpose of her trip. Her grandson's throat is still bad. He swallowed lye two or three years ago. She's come to get his medicine.
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She talks a bit about her grandson. They're by themselves.
The nurse brings the medicine, marked "Charity." The attendant gives Phoenix a nickel for Christmas. She looks at both her nickels and has an idea. She's going to go buy her grandson a little paper windmill. She leaves the doctor's office.
Phoenix Jackson perseveres through her conflicts with her environment and people, including herself.
There are many environmental elements that make the trip difficult:
- It's December—it's cold and there's snow down.
- It's a long walk through the woods, with uneven terrain and sometimes uphill.
- There's a thorny bush that catches her skirt.
- To cross a stream, she has to balance on a log.
- She has to crawl through a barbed-wire fence.
- There are animals in the forest; she gets startled by a dog and falls into a ditch.
Phoenix keeps going despite the natural obstacles. She travels at her own pace, resting if needed, until she succeeds.
Phonenix Jackson perseveres through her dealings with other people:
- The hunter tells her the town is too far away. He twice tells her to go home.
- He trivializes her trip, assuming she's going to see Santa Claus.
- He refers to her by the casual "Granny".
- He points his gun at her for his amusement.
- The woman who ties Phoenix's shoes calls her "Grandma".
- The staff at the doctor's refer to Phoenix as "Grandma" and "Aunt Phoenix". Every person she has interacted with has addressed her casually rather than with a more respectful title, like "ma'am" or "Mrs. Jackson".
- They show impatience with her diminished abilities, and scold her for taking up their time.
Phoenix copes with all of these slights as she keeps her eye on completing her trip.
Phoenix perseveres through her own limitations:
- She's very old, probably 80 at the least.
- She uses a cane.
- She has to do the bulk of the trip with her shoes untied; presumably, she was unable to tie them herself before leaving home.
- Her sight isn't sharp.
- Her mind wanders to the point of hallucination while she rests on the bank.
- She too frail to get up on her own after falling into the ditch.
- When she reaches the doctor's office, she has forgotten why she came.
Phoenix's long, difficult journey is all the more arduous due to her age, frailty and diminished senses.
1. What is the symbolic significance of the protagonist's name?
The protagonist's name, Phoenix, obviously has some symbolic meaning.
The phoenix is a mythological bird associated with fire, known for rising from its own ashes, being reborn or resurrected. It could be said that Phoenix Jackson figuratively dies after each successful trip due to the effort involved. She then figuratively rises every time she has to make her difficult trip again.
This comparison is supported in the text:
- Her coloring is warm— her head is tied with a red rag, a "golden color [runs] underneath" her skin, and there's a "yellow burning" under her cheeks.
- Her hair has "an odor like copper", another color suggesting warmth.
- Her tapping cane is like the chirping of a bird.
- Phoenix likens her grandson to "a little bird".
2. Is the title symbolic?
In fiction, a journey is often seen as a parallel for the figurative journey of life.
Phoenix Jackson uses a worn path for her trip to the city. It's noteworthy, though, that being worn isn't the same as being smooth. The path she walks is very difficult. Similarly, a person could be living in "a worn path", that is, going through the same routine over and over. This doesn't mean their life is easy. Phoenix's journey to the city could be symbolic of her life's journey, which would have been filled with challenges as well.