“A Worn Path”, written by Eudora Welty, which won the O. Henry Prize that very year as it was first published, is a short fiction story that has withstood the criticism and became a classic work of realistic South. The story that describes an old woman, Phoenix Jackson, who makes her trip through the woods, pain and suffering to get the medicine for her grandson, is enriched with symbolism, mythological and political elements, as well as religious approaches that are also reflected in the writing. Disregarding the racial discrepancy, which was a stumbling block for the contemporary critics, the writer is aiming to show more deep concerns of dedication, eagerness to serve, and struggle in a simple, yet skillful, tone and style, and using a plain language.
The first evident thing of the “Worn Path” is a tone that seems to be simple, but it just the deceitful impression of mind. As the reader keeps going through the lines of the story, he finds that it is rich of symbolism and shadowed meanings. The story is not limited by the scope of the Old Natchez Trace and represents a remarkable combination of legend and symbols. Even the name of the writing is hiding a notion of every human’s life, who is making his path through the thorns and different obstacles to something that may bring healing and life to others as well as to himself. It is worn because it is an everyday journey, which has to be done for it is a constant craving for action and the sense of life itself. Without a path, man is loosing the meaning of life and the reason to live.
On the other hand, the old woman’s name, Phoenix, is a symbolic representation of the bird from the Egyptian myth. This very Phoenix was able to rise from the ashes every 500 years, therefore, after the destruction it found strength to raise up and live again. This very symbol was the core principle of woman’s life, she knew that her grandson, who is not able to help himself, needs someone to support his living and if she does not find strength enough to reach the town and get the medicine, she will loose him. But “we is the only two left in the world [and] he going to last” (Welty, p. 69).
Since the “Worn Path” is written from the point of view of a third person, the style of the story allows the reader to look at all characters from the distance and evaluate them, just like the others, who could see her, were able to do. And again the comparison gives us the chance to uncover the true meaning of a simple paragraph. Welty has used a number of direct comparisons, or similes, to help the reader uncover another idea. From the very start, the reader finds the image of Jackson: “Her skin had a pattern all its own of numberless branching wrinkles and as through a whole little tree stood in the middle of her forehead” (Ibid, p. 64). Yet, the tree, with all its leaves and roots, represents longevity and even if it fells, it will give sprouts to keep living.
Later on, when she comes across a scarecrow, Phoenix finds “a coat and inside that an emptiness, cold as ice” (Ibid, p. 65). Since the author leaves a place for reader’s imagination, we can suppose that the scarecrow can be a symbol of anything we can fear in our life, while we are getting through the deserted fields or undiscovered territories, but still, when we approach it, we realize that it is just an artificial object, which has nothing inside, expect emptiness. The log, another huge obstacle of Jackson’s path, forces her to act “like a festival figure in some parade”, but overcoming it, Phoenix says “I wasn’t as old as I thought” (Ibid, p. 65). Therefore, any obstacle, no matter how enormous it seems to be in our eyes, must be accepted with a festive mood. If we do not give up and overcome it, we will keep in mind that God will not give us more than we can bear.
The limitation of space does not give up the possibility to describe the list of other symbols and apply them to a real life. Another issue of the story is setting that is dependent on two variables: time and place. Taking into account that time, when the story was written, 1941, is a real one, then the age of the old woman may vary from 80 to 100 years old, since she says that “I never did go to school, I was too old at the Surrender” (p. 69). This fact may astonish any reader, who can realize the difficulties this woman has met on her journey and, besides, in December.
Place plays a remarkable role in “Worn Path”, for the author states that Phoenix Jackson “lives away back off the Old Natchez Trace” (p.69). Even a young hunter says that it is so far to get to the town. Besides, her way through the forests is full of difficulties: wild animals (“out of my way, all you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons and wild animals” (p. 64)), thorns, log, ditch, stream, barbed-wire fence. All these trials prove her persistence and self-sacrifice for the good of her grandson.
The contrasts of Phoenix’s character all through the story show a constant hardships and battle of everyday life. The old woman was tested by the thorny bush and a log, frightened by the scarecrow, but when the hunted pointed a gut at her, “she stood straight and faced him”, so that he exclaimed: “you must be a hundred years old, and scared of nothing” (p. 67). When this white hunter taunts her by assuming: “I know you old colored people! Wouldn’t miss going to town to see Santa Claus!” (p. 66), Phoenix holds still and keeps answering his questions with self-esteem.
The contrast between conversation with hunter and silence with attendant must be based on the impatient tone of voice, or rude words “what seems to be the trouble with you? … Are you deaf” (p. 69). In these words sounds clear racial and age discrimination, but, disregarding the attitude, Phoenix Jackson could pass it with dignity and steadfastness. And even, when the attendant proposes her few pennies, she stiffly accepts them without any word of gratitude or humbleness. Receiving the medicine and a nickel, Phoenix imagines only her grandson again, and is going to make another trip to a shop to buy a little windmill. With her slow steps, on she goes, an old woman, Phoenix Jackson, who has already been living a long life, yet still sacrificing it to the dearest one, who warms her feelings and keeps her inner flame – grandson – he is her craving for life and new paths to walk.
Welty, Eudora. A Curtain of Green: and Other Stories. Harcourt; 50 Anv edition. 1991.