Critical Analysis

Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path" depicts the journey of Phoenix Jackson, an elderly black woman. At first, this journey appears to not be for any apparent reason. Phoenix travels over hills and through the woods, enduring multiple hardships, encounters with disrespect, and moments of loneliness. By the end of the story, the reader realizes that Phoenix's trip does have a goal. She walks to get medicine for her sick grandson who "swallowed lye"(p. 105). The theme that runs through the story is that Phoenix will endure hardship, disrespect, and even loneliness for the love of her grandson.

Phoenix faces two different types of hardship, one being the physical aspects such as her age, blindness, and senility. There's no doubt that Phoenix is well up in her years. When reaching that golden age there are many obstacles to overcome. The body starts to change in ways that makes us depend on other physical aspects. Welty leaves no doubt in the reader's mind that Phoenix is old, and that she has the hardships that accompany advancing age. One example of many in the writing is, "Her skin had a pattern all its own of numberless branching wrinkles" (p. 98). Because she continues to think of the health of her grandson, the path to town becomes nothing more than a walk in the park. Welty implies that the memories she has of her grandson seem so real that not even her physical disabilities can keep her from making the journey.

One major physical hardship is the fact that Phoenix is most likely blind. "Her eyes were blue with age," and "She carried a thin, small cane made from an umbrella, and with this she kept tapping the frozen earth in front of her" (p. 98). The fact that she keeps persistently tapping the earth in front of her could only indicate one thing: that she is visually impaired. Welty conveys to us that Phoenix may not be completely blind, but she has to be substantially impaired to keep tapping her cane in an irritating manner. Someone who is even remotely visually impaired should not be traveling in the forest. However, because of the love Phoenix has for her grandson, she keeps her goal in her mind's sight and does not need her eyesight.

Phoenix also suffers from a problem that often plagues people at an old age, senility. For instance, she has hallucinations. "But she sat down to rest... She did not dare to close her eyes and when a little boy brought her a plate with a slice of marble cake on it she spoke to him. 'That would be acceptable,' she said. But when she went to take it there was just her own hand in the air" (p. 99). This was just one time in the story where Phoenix talks to herself or has hallucinations. Welty leaves us with the impression that Phoenix often behaves this way. Although she may suffer from senility due to old age, Phoenix does not allow these hallucinations to stop her from getting to town to get medicine for her grandson. This proves how much she loves him.

The other type of hardship Phoenix has to contend with is the burden of the trip itself and the obstacles she has to overcome to get to town. The weather itself is unfortunate, "It was December - a bright frozen day in the early morning" (p. 98). But for Phoenix, her grandson is sick and his illness favors no season. She has to endure the deadness of winter. Welty reveals through Phoenix that when it comes to the health of a loved one, no season has sympathy.

Since the trip is far into the valley and through the woods, Phoenix leaves early in the morning to get a head start on the day. Phoenix just comes out of the woods to a steep hill and says, " Seems like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far" (p. 99). Although Phoenix is a strong willed woman, the hill is like a mountain trying to break her will. "Something always take a hold of me on this hill--pleads I should stay" (p. 99). Welty shows how Phoenix endures the hardship and pain of climbing the hill and does not let it keep her from making the trip. The reader sees that even when the pain is excruciating she keeps climbing that mountain of a hill because she loves her grandson so much.

Phoenix passes through many areas where dark and scary animals live. " A pleasure I don't see no two-headed snake coming around that tree, where it came once" (p. 100) she exclaims, remembering one summer she had to watch for such creatures. This is not surprising, since down in the southern part of United States there are many deadly snakes. It is obvious that because Phoenix lives so far back in the woods, no help would reach her in time if a snake bit her, and death would creep in. Through Phoenix, Welty shows that not even deadly snakes or animals can keep her from seeking the medicine needed for her beloved grandson.

Along her journey, Phoenix has three exchanges with people, and everyone she meets is white. Each of them treats her with the same disrespectful attitude, although to varying degrees of severity. Though she is treated so poorly, Phoenix keeps her eye on her purpose, getting medicine for the grandson she loves so much.

The first person Phoenix encounters is a hunter who pulls her up out of the ditch she has fallen in. His surprise at finding her there is evident when he exclaims, "Well, Granny!" (p. 101). He continues to call her Granny, hardly a respectful term for someone he does not know. When Phoenix tells him why she is out, he first assumes she has no reason, that she is not getting "anything for [her] trouble" (p. 102). He rudely tells her that the only reason she is heading to town is to see Santa Claus, since all "old colored people" (p. 102) want to. Toward the end of the exchange, the hunter advises Phoenix to "stay home, and nothing will happen to you" (p. 103), indicating that she has no business being anywhere but home. Welty indicates that Phoenix says nothing in response to the hunter's disrespectful statements, but continues to think only of her grandson.

The hunter is disrespectful in other ways. He asks Phoenix's age (p. 102), another inappropriate question for a new acquaintance. He lies to her, telling her that he would "give [her] a dime if [he] had any money" (p. 103). Phoenix even knows he is lying, since she picked up a nickel that fell from his purse already.

After running a dog off, the hunter returns to Phoenix and points his gun right at her (p. 102), as if he knows that he could kill the old black woman and no one would care. He does not even stop to think that a small child, loved greatly by Phoenix, waits for her at home. Welty has endowed Phoenix with the strength to be undaunted by the hunter's threats, and to continue on her way to get her grandson's medicine. She will survive for him.

The second person Phoenix converses with is the most civil of them all. While walking in town, Phoenix stops a woman and asks her to tie her shoes for her. It is clearly Christmas time, because the lady has packages. Although the woman's initial response to Phoenix is rude, "What do you want, Grandma?" (p. 103), she ties Phoenix's shoes. Perhaps if it was not a holiday time of year, the lady would not have been so obliging, but this fact does not stop Phoenix from getting to the doctor's office with laced shoes. Welty suggests that Phoenis does what she has to do, enduring disrespect by asking a "nice lady to tie up [her] shoe" (p. 103), if it means that the grandson she dearly loves gets his medicine.

Phoenix finally arrives at her destination and is greeted not politely, but with, "A charity case, I suppose" (p. 104). The attendant at the desk assumes that Phoenix has been in before, and demands that Phoenix speak up and give her personal information. Asked if she is deaf when she momentarily does not respond, Phoenix is identified by a nurse as "old Aunt Phoenix" (p. 104), another term meant to be disrespectful. The nurse's tone seems much more sympathetic at first, as she offers Phoenix a seat. However, she too soon becomes frustrated with Phoenix's lost memory, telling Phoenix she must not "take up our time this way" (p. 104). The nurse refers to Phoenix's grandson as "an obstinate case" (p. 105), and not as a little boy loved by his grandmother. Phoenix is hushed by the nurse, who marks "charity" (p. 105) in her book. The nurse then makes sure that Phoenix understands that her grandson will get the medicine only as long as she is able to come for it. Since it is Christmas time, the nurse offers to give Phoenix "a few pennies out of my purse" (p. 105). It is obvious that normally, the nurse would not think Phoenix worth giving money to.

All of the disrespect that Phoenix endures at the doctor's office has a purpose. It is the price that Phoenix must pay for the continued health of her grandson. Welty conveys in many ways that Phoenix knows that if she does not get his medicine, he will die. It is easy to see that Phoenix loves him too much to let that happen.

Ribbons of loneliness contribute to the theme of "A Worn Path." The very opening line denotes the loneliness and starkness of a cold December morning "far out in the country" (p. 98). In that first paragraph, other phrases seem to establish the loneliness of the old woman. She moves like the "pendulum in a grand-father clock" (p. 98), which steadily marks time alone. At the end of the first paragraph, Welty perhaps refers to the legend of the Phoenix, the bird who regenerates and rises up out of its own ashes at the appointed time. The noises Phoenix Jackson is making are compared to the "chirping of a solitary little bird" (p. 98). Welty's entry into the story sets the scene for a depiction of the loneliness Phoenix experiences on the journey she makes for the sole purpose of getting medicine for her grandson.

More feelings of loneliness are expressed by descriptions of the scenery through which Phoenix passes on her trip. The "woods are deep and still" (p. 98), and sounds of the mourning dove, a single bird's theme (p. 99), provide background music for Phoenix's journey. The fields she traipses through are "quiet and bare" (p. 101) and Phoenix herself declares that she is walking in the sleep of the abandoned cabins and trees with dead leaves (p. 101). Even the alligators are not accompanying Phoenix, and she tells them they should "sleep on, …and blow your bubbles" (p. 101). This world Welty shows is one that Phoenix commits herself to for the good of her grandson. It is cold, dead, and very lonely. The reader knows that surely, Phoenix would never take such a lonesome path repeatedly if she did not love her grandson so much.

Although Phoenix does have her grandson, many parts of Welty's short story suggest that Phoenix has been effectively alone in times of strife before. She has a voice that she reserves to use when scolding herself, suggesting that she has occasion to use it often (p. 99). She speaks of waiting to get by a two-headed snake in the summertime (p. 100). When asking the lady on the street to tie her shoe, Phoenix pleads her case by explaining that she "can't lace 'em with a cane" (p. 103). This statement tells the reader that there is no one else who can lace Phoenix's shoes for her. Although Welty shows that Phoenix's life and path are lonely, Phoenix endures in her quest to help her grandson because she loves him.

The saddest parts of the story are those which explain the depth of the loneliness of Phoenix's life. While resting during her walk, she begins to daydream of an easier life, one with marble-cake on a plate and a little boy to serve her (p. 99). Of course, it is just a hallucination, and Phoenix moves along the path alone. She explains to the scarecrow she thinks might be a ghost that she has "heard of nary death close by" (p. 100), indicating that loved ones have deserted her in their deaths long ago. Most heart wrenching is the simple picture Phoenix paints for the nurse and attendant of her "little grandson, …waiting by himself" (p. 105). Phoenix resolves to use the money she has to buy her only companion a windmill (p. 105). The life she lives with her grandson is plainly lonely and difficult, but also profoundly loving. Welty makes it clear that, if not for the grandson Phoenix loves so much, her life would be too lonely to continue. Phoenix does make the trip in all its loneliness however, which is proof that she loves her ailing grandson.

Phoenix Jackson's journey paints a portrait of serious hardship, disrespect, and loneliness. Through it all, though, Phoenix always remembers the true purpose of the trip. She knows that she needs to live through the hardships, tolerate the disrespect, and endure the loneliness for the sake of her grandson. Love could not possibly be expressed more completely.

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