The Strength and Determination of Phoenix in “A Worn Path,”
Have you ever experienced hardship in your life where you had to overcome the psychological/physical obstacles of that path whether it was symbolic or literal of what you were experiencing with determination to survive and to help a loved one? “A Worn Path,” a short story by Eudora Welty, is set in the south during the Great Depression around Christmas time and focuses on an old African American woman with the wrinkles of life on her face, whose name is Phoenix Jackson that exhibits determination to survive the symbolic/literal deterrence’s of nature’s frozen grounds, the animals that lurk around, a helpful but also unsuccessful intimidating young hunter, along with the pain/suffering of getting caught on a thorny bush and the spill she takes into the ditch as she is walking the path of her journey to retrieve charitable medication for her grandson who is unable to swallow any drink or food because he is sick. In the short story “A Worn Path,” The author depicts Phoenix Jackson as an old frail woman who has experienced psychological/physical obstacles with determination throughout her life, but also as having a great strength to endure the magnitude of pain/suffering within herself and of nature and man through symbolism and literal encounters, because of her enduring sacrifice of love for her grandson to retrieve the medication he needs.
Eudora Welty uses symbolism along with literal encounters throughout this short story of Phoenix Jackson’s trip into town to retrieve medication for her beloved grandson. The author starts by showing Phoenix’s undying love of determination to do what is needed for him; as she starts her journey on a cold winter morning emphasizing the strength she will portray to overcome the struggle that will be encountered due to her frail body, and her inability to walk without a cane to balance herself, but with determination she begins her journey on the cold frozen ground through the darkness slowly “She was very old and small and she walked slowly in the dark pine shadows, moving a little from side to side in her steps, with the balanced heaviness and lightness of a pendulum for film in a grandfather clock” (Welty, 1940, p. 464). Along Phoenix’s journey she encounters a steep hill that had to be climbed, so with a Christlike appearance of pain and suffering she continued up the hill; this part of the journey brought about an image that led Piwinski to refer to a story Sara Trefman recollected “recalls the earlier journey of Christ up the hill of Calvary” (Piwinski, 2003). While Welty illustrated her determination to ignore her frail body that feels bound down “Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far” (Welty, 1940, p. 464) to prevent her from climbing the hill so she does not have to endure the pain “Something always take a hold of me on this hill—pleads I should stay” (Welty, 1940, p. 464).
Further into the story Phoenix is resting on the bank of the creek she had crossed; while gazing up at the sky her eyes came across mistletoe that appears as if it were a pearly cloud that reinforced the season as Piwinski confirmed with a picturistic image, “a pattern to underline the idea of Christmas time” (Piwinski, 2003). After the symbolic/literal interlude with the vision of mistletoe she continues her path with determination to make it into town. When Phoenix encounters a black dog, who runs out in front of her that sends the old frail woman into a ditch on her back and unable to get up; she expresses the predicament literally laid out before her “Lying on my back like a June-bug waiting to be turned over” (Welty, 1940, p. 466). So, she lies there for a while thinking about how that black dog had caught her off guard causing her to be lying in a ditch and delaying her trip into town “Old woman,” she said to herself, “that black dog come up out of the weeds to stall you off” (Welty, 1940, p. 466). Eventually, a young male hunter came across her lying in the ditch and he expresses to her with an amused tone “Well, Granny!” he laughed, “What are you doing there?” (Welty, 1940, p. 466). After the young hunter retrieved her from the ditch he inquired if she was hurt from her fall “Anything broken, Granny?” (Welty, 1940, p. 466).
During their banter back and forth Phoenix became aware of a nickel that had fallen out of the young hunter’s pocket, so with determination appearing on her wrinkled face and standing extremely still with the anticipation of obtaining that nickel “Phoenix very still, the deep lines in her face went into a fierce and different radiation” (Welty, 1940, p. 466). With a plan in her head to distract the hunter by proclaiming that the black dog was not scared of nothing as she tried to scare the dog away by clapping and yelling at him “He ain’t scared of nobody He a big black dog” (Welty, 1940, p. 467). Phoenix’s deliberate deception worked on the young hunter as he began to show off his dog’s ability to run the black dog off by saying “Watch me get rid of that cur,” said the man “Sic him, Pete! Sic him!” (Welty, 1940, p. 467).
While the young hunter was distracted with the dogs; she bent over to retrieve the nickel that had fallen out of his pocket from the ground, so carefully as if it was fragile “Her fingers slid down and along the ground under the piece of money with the grace and care they would have in lifting an egg from under a setting hen” (Welty, 1940, p. 467). As Phoenix was slowly advancing upright with the nickel in her pocket she realized the young hunter had returned as she stood straight up. Too her surprise he was pointing the gun in her direction as though to intimidate her, so Phoenix stood straight and fierce in the face of danger as the young hunter proclaimed, “Doesn’t the gun scare you?” (Welty, 1940, p. 467). Phoenix was still standing straight and with a fierceness of determination and strength across her old wrinkled face she stated as if she was admitting to what she had done “No, sir, I seen plenty go off closer by, in my day, and for less than what I done” (Welty, 1940, p. 467). The young hunter came to the conclusion as he realized that Phoenix was so old that she possessed an illusion of immortality and strength that nothing was going to scare her “Well, Granny,” he said, “you must be a hundred years old, and scared of nothing” (Welty, 1940, p. 467). Phoenix was eager to leave this young hunter behind and continue on her trip into town as she stated to him “I bound to go on my way, mister,” (Welty, 1940, p. 467) but he still advised her to go home where she would be safe “take my advice and stay home, and nothing will happen to you” (Welty, 1940, p. 467).
With determination of continuing her journey she went on her way and as she eventually approached the sidewalk of her destination; she came across a young woman holding wrapped Christmas presents and with her being in town her belief of having her shoes tide let her to ask this young woman for help with her shoelaces, so she asked the young woman “Please, missy, will you lace up my shoe?” (Welty, 1940, p. 467). After the young woman charitably helped her, Phoenix expressed her appreciation to the young woman with an explanation of why she needed her shoelaces tide “Thank you, missy, I doesn’t mind asking a nice lady to tie up my shoes when I get out on the street” (Welty, 1940, p. 467). With her shoelaces tide, she entered the building and continued up the spiral staircase into the doctor’s office where she would retrieve the charitable medication that she had walked so far for and encountered all sorts of physical and emotional deterrence all for her beloved grandson.
In conclusion to my interpretation of what the author of this short story was trying to express through symbolism and literal encounters about Phoenix Jackson’s great strength and determination of her trip into town to receive some charitable medication for her beloved grandson, while enduring the magnitude of obstacles such as the hill she climbed even when her old frail body was reluctant, and her fall into the ditch due to a big black dog surprising her, along with her profitable but disturbing encounter with the young male hunter, she was triumphant in her journey on behalf of her grandson that she loved with all her heart to the point that she endured all the magnitude of obstacles within herself and of nature and man.
Piwinski, D. J. (2003). Mistletoe in Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path.” ANQ, 16(1), 40–42. https://doi-org.southuniversity.libproxy.edmc.edu/10.1080/08957690309598188
Welty, E. (1940). A worn path. In L.G. Kirszner & S.R. Mandell (Eds.), Compact Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing [VitalSource digital version] (p. 464-469). Boston: Cengage.
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