A Worn Path by Eudora Welty, 1941

views updated

by Eudora Welty, 1941

The "unrivaled favorite" question of Eudora Welty's readers provides the title for her essay on "A Worn Path," "Is Phoenix Jackson's Grandson Really Dead?" Denying any intent to tease her audience Welty says she "must assume that the boy is alive"; if he were not the "truth of the story" would nevertheless "persist in the 'wornness' of the path" as the ancient grandmother makes her way to Natchez for medicine to relieve the child's suffering. The subject, Welty explains, is "the deep-grained habit of love."

One of Welty's earliest publications in a major magazine, "A Worn Path" was written in 1940 and appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1941. The story won the second prize in that year's O. Henry Award competition, and it holds the important final position in A Curtain of Green and Other Stories (1941), the author's first collection. Welty says the story originated in the "indelible" image of an elderly black woman whom she saw slowly crossing a wintry field. Another time, on the same road, Welty spoke with an old woman who said she was "too old at the Surrender." Welty did not know whether this was the woman whose distant figure had so impressed her, but she felt the words belonged in the tale, "It was a case of joining two things that I had thought of, and making them into one." Although she told an interviewer that she did not begin the story with an intent to "write about the black race," Welty doubts "A Worn Path" would have been the same with a white protagonist because "it wouldn't have the same urgency about it."

As a Mississippi native Welty found a more general source for "A Worn Path" in her familiarity with the history and the legends of the Natchez Trace, a wilderness area that forms the setting for the comic novella The Robber Bridegroom (1942) and for all but one piece in The Wide Net and Other Stories (1943). Suzanne Marrs relates "A Worn Path" to the many Natchez Trace photographs Welty took during the 1930s and suggests that Phoenix's "heroic quest for medicine" is as "enduring as the daily and seasonal cycles" of the landscape.

Welty's fascination with myths and fairy tales is evident from the opening paragraphs, as the "very old" woman begins her journey on an early morning in December. Welty has remarked that the name Phoenix is a "legitimate" symbol since it is also "an appropriate Mississippi name," "If it comes in naturally, then it can call up some overtones and I don't mean to do any more than that."

The image of the mythic Arabian bird rising every 500 years from its own funeral pyre generates overtones of self-sacrificial death and resurrection that describe the periodic trips Phoenix takes to sustain life in her only remaining relative. The "yellow burning" under her dark cheeks, her red headrag, and her hair's "odor like copper" recall the blazing colors of the phoenix, which in its cyclic return is associated with the sun. Phoenix walks her treacherous path summer and winter as she, like the mythic Persephone, makes her way between worlds on errands of love. The precious medicine that awaits her in the doctor's office at the top of a "tower of steps" has the almost magical power to restore breath to the small boy whose throat—burned by lye a few years ago—closes up "every little while."

Louise Westling suggests that Phoenix exhibits a "distinctively feminine kind of heroism" deriving from women's roles as "guardians and nurturers of children"; men's quests, on the other hand, often involve battles for dominance and are typically concerned with "self-definition." Thus Welty contrasts the tiny old woman with the white young hunter who helps her out of a ditch but who proves the most vicious impediment in her path. Not only does he jokingly point his gun at Phoenix, but he guiltily thinks he saw her pick up a nickel that had fallen from his pocket. (Still, he lies that he would give her a dime if he had any money.) Urging her to return home, he laughs: "I know you old colored people! Wouldn't miss going to town to see Santa Claus!"

Ironically the hunter calls Phoenix "Granny," unaware that her grandson's distress has impelled her to climb hills, tangle with a thorn bush, creep through a barbed-wire fence, and face "the trial" of crossing a creek on a log with her eyes shut and her slender cane leveled "fiercely before her." Katherine Anne Porter has identified a "mysterious threshold between dream and waking" in several of Welty's stories, and Phoenix's obstacles include a confrontation with a ghost that turns out to be a scarecrow, a hallucinatory visitation from a boy who offers her a slice of marble cake, and a sensation that she is walking in the sleep of "old women under a spell." Welty's descriptions are characteristically figurative. "Big dead trees" are "like black men with one arm," and the "emptiness" of the scarecrow's coat is "cold as ice."

Phoenix's struggles do not end when she emerges from the shadowy woods and arrives in the "shining" and "paved city." Alert to urban decorum she must ask a lady to tie the shoes that have been unlaced the whole journey. In the doctor's office a "ceremonial stiffness" grips her body, and she cannot respond to the receptionist's greeting: "A charity case, I suppose." Although the nurse immediately recognizes her Phoenix's silence leads her to ask abruptly whether the grandson is dead. Finally aroused, Phoenix confesses a lapse of memory and assures her impatient listeners that not only is the boy alive, but he is "going to last"; moreover, she will never forget him again: "no, the whole enduring time."

The nurse marks "Charity" in her account book, and the attendant gives Phoenix a nickel, which she will pair with the hunter's unwitting contribution to buy her grandchild a paper windmill. But the most heartfelt act of giving in the story is the selfless journey that Phoenix continues, in true Christmas spirit, as her slow steps head back down the stairway, moving toward the path worn smooth by her love.

—Joan Wylie Hall