A Worn Path by Eudora Welty

A Worn Path - Eudora WeltyIn A Worn Path by Eudora Welty we have the theme of struggle, sacrifice, determination, perseverance, selflessness and love. Taken from her A Curtain of Green and Other Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Welty may be using the setting of the story to explore the theme of struggle. Throughout Phoenix’s journey into town there is a sense that she is struggling, that in many ways she is being hindered in her attempt to get into town. Some examples of the struggle Phoenix encounters include the incident when she tears her skirt on the thorny bush, how she has to go through a barbed-wire fence and later when she falls into the ditch. Each of these incidents may be important as it is possible that Welty is not only highlighting to the reader the struggles that Phoenix encounters on her journey into town but it is also possible that Welty is highlighting the struggles that many (if not all) African Americans at the time the story was published (1941) encountered while trying to make some progress in their lives. At the time the story was published racial equality would not have existed in America (particularly in the South where the story is set) and African Americans would have been treated as second class citizens with many white Americans considering themselves to have been superior to African Americans.

It may also be significant that throughout her journey, Phoenix communicates with each animal she encounters. By doing so Welty may be highlighting Phoenix’s capacity to love despite incurring difficulties. Welty further explores the idea or theme of love later in the story when Phoenix reaches town and the reader discovers her reason for going to town in the first place. The fact that Phoenix does reach town may also be important as by having Phoenix succeed not only is Welty highlighting her perseverance but she may also be highlighting how determined Phoenix is. It may also be significant that Phoenix has a sense of humour and an ability to laugh at herself as this would suggest that Phoenix is a well-balanced person. Each difficulty she encounters, she laughs at and overcomes.

The fact that Phoenix is never called by her first name by any of the other characters in the story may also be important. The white man (hunter) who encounters Phoenix as she is going to town calls her ‘Granny’, while the young woman who helps Phoenix tie her shoe lace calls her ‘Grandma’. Similarly the attendant in the hospital also calls Phoenix ‘Grandma’ and ‘a charity case’. Also the nurse in the hospital calls her ‘Aunt Phoenix’. Each individual appears to patronise Phoenix rather than show her the respect that one would expect a woman to receive. By having each character display a lack of respect towards Phoenix it is also possible that Welty is suggesting that likewise many African Americans had to live their lives (at the time the story was published) being patronized or being denied of their dignity and individuality.

There is also some symbolism in the story which may be important. By having the white man point his gun at Phoenix after he helps her from the ditch, Welty may be suggesting that likewise many African Americans were confronted with violence or aggression from white people. The fact that Phoenix is not scared may also be important as it is possible that Welty is suggesting that aggression against African Americans (again at the time the story was published) may have been a common occurrence. Phoenix may be used to being threatened and as such no longer fears these threats. The fact that Phoenix lives so far from town may also be significant as it is through distancing Phoenix from others (and those who live in town) that Welty may be highlighting the racial isolation that existed at the time. Phoenix’s name may also be symbolic. A phoenix is commonly known to be a mythical bird that has the ability to rise again. It is possible that Welty is suggesting that despite the adversity Phoenix faces as she makes her way into town she too will rise again (that she will overcome her difficulties).

Welty also tells the reader, while the nurse is speaking to Phoenix, that ‘at last there was a flicker and then a flame of comprehension across her face.’ This line may be important as symbolically Welty could again be likening Phoenix to the mythical bird of the same name. The two dogs which belong to the white man and which are seen fighting may also be important as by telling the reader that both dogs were fighting, Welty may be symbolically making reference to the conflict that existed at the time between African Americans and white people. The nickel that Phoenix picks up from the ground may also have some symbolic significance as by introducing it into the story, Welty may be attempting to highlight how selfless Phoenix is. Money, particularly in literature, is commonly used to symbolise greed however the fact that Phoenix uses both the nickel she picks up from the ground and the nickel the nurse gives her to buy something for her grandson suggests that she is being selfless, that she is thinking of somebody else.

The ending of the story is also interesting as not only does the reader become aware of the reason for Phoenix’s journey (to help her grandson) but it is through this awareness that the reader realises that Welty may be further exploring the theme of love. Despite the difficulties that she has had to overcome Phoenix has been selfless with her only priority being to help her grandson and get him the medicine he needs. By having Phoenix tell the nurse that her grandson’s illness ‘don’t seem to put him back at all’ it is possible that Welty is also suggesting that Phoenix’s grandson, though he has encountered difficulty, like Phoenix (and other African Americans) he too has the capacity to overcome any adversity he may face. The fact that Phoenix intends to buy a paper windmill for her grandson may also be important as symbolically Welty may be using the windmill (and its circular motion) to symbolise the circle of life and that Phoenix by giving her grandson the windmill will live on through him. Just as her name suggests, Phoenix will rise again.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "A Worn Path by Eudora Welty." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 19 May. 2015. Web.

2 comments

  • “The fact that Phoenix is never called by her first name by any of the other characters in the story may also be important.”

    Excellent insights here, especially this one.

    I read this a while ago and remember thinking that one possibility for the ending is that the grandson is dead, but Phoenix makes the journey by habit (maybe she’s in denial through grief) and the nurses give her the medicine out of kindness, so long as she shows up. I think there’s some kind of holiday in the town, so maybe it’s also an unspoken need to connect with people, after living remotely and after the death of her grandchild. But yes, the other possibility is that the grandson is still alive, and that his health depends in large part on her tenacity.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Hila. The second time I read the story (and after I posted the review) I thought maybe Phoenix’s grandson was (as you suggest) already dead. It’s hard to know for sure and I think that’s one of the things that makes the story so good, it’s open to interpretation.

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