At first glance, Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path” seems as if it’s going to be another, typical tale of a “sista’s struggle ‘gainst the ‘White Man’” story; however, her journey illuminates the subtleties of all who have gone through a similar plight and the hope that comes with perseverance. The protagonist, Phoenix Jackson, was an old woman plagued with physical and mental limitations but is, in a sense, reborn as she overcomes adversity, in spite of her own fears to achieve her goals. Jackson’s worn path is a treacherous one that leads to a small town along the Mississippi River called Natchez where she intends to retrieve medicine for her sick grandson who swallowed lye about two years prior. Her journey through this path, which she has taken many times before, symbolizes the struggle of the African American family in the United States which sought out equality in a country that still held many stereotypical apprehensions close to heart. Moreover, Jackson’s trip through this path opens her eyes allowing for the birth of a youthful realization within herself despite the constant reminders of a decadent past. Her struggles embody that of all who desired equal acceptance throughout the history of our country.
Jackson’s journey, however, was not easy as she faced many physical and social obstacles that impeded her path before she even started. In “The Diversity of American Families,” Stoller and Gibson referring to African American families explain that: “When children are orphaned, when parents are ill or at work, or when biological mothers are too young to care for their children alone, other women in the community take on child care responsibilities, sometimes temporarily but other times permanently.” According to the story, Jackson is roughly between eighty and ninety-years-old and yet still has to care for her grandson as if she were his own mother. No information is given as to the existence or whereabouts of Jackson’s son or daughter but one could assume that her having to walk that trail at her age in the winter probably means that she was the only one left to do it. Having the selflessness to care for her grandson in hopes that he will have a better future was practically second nature to her as she takes to the road yet again even though a woman her age should be resting in retirement. The obstacles she faces are everywhere around her including within her own head. While having to deal with the demons of her past in hallucinations, she must also overcome a thorn bush, a barbed wire fence, a maze of corn and then a dog that knocks her into a ditch all of which relate to the physical struggles African Americans in the South faced in her time. She is then approached by a white man that helps her out and while doing so, drops a nickel on the ground. In an act of defiance, which was similar to that of the black slaves that revolted in the past, she takes the man’s nickel and puts it in her pocket. After pointing his weapon at her and asking if she was frightened, she said, “No, sir, I seen plenty go off closer by, in my day, and for less than what I done.” Jackson believed that the man was willing to shoot her for a nickel and potentially alluded to having seen other African Americans lose their lives to slave owners. Having a weapon pointed at oneself can be a very stressful and overbearing situation but Jackson faced her fears; she did it calm and still with the threat of losing her life not straying her away from her goal. Next, Jackson encounters a woman and asks her to tie her shoes; the woman, though compliant to Jackson’s wishes, was far from respectful or courteous to her elder and symbolized the daily prejudices that blacks faced in the South even on the city streets. Blacks were no longer slaves at the time but there was still racial segregation in bathrooms, busses, and even schools all across the United States not allowing for complete cultural assimilation amongst whites. Even the following person she sees, the attendant, calls her a charity case without so much as even asking Jackson for her name. After finally seeing the nurse and retrieving the throat medicine, she had accomplished her goal and can now tend to her grandson. What should have been a simple trip down to the pharmacy became an arduous journey which started with the difficulties of being a “mother” in an African American family, to the unknowns of the path, and the assumptions and prejudices of others. Throughout the course of the story, she is only addressed by her name once and was even treated harshly by nature itself but never faltered in hopes that her journey down the beat-down, old, worn path will help pave the way for her grandson and other African Americans that succeed her.
Though faced with many hardships in her path, Jackson’s character and other elements of the story symbolize rebirth for her and for future generations. First, the setting of the story suggests rebirth because it takes place in December on Christmas; furthermore, Christmas is the celebration of Jesus’ birth, a man who is believed by Christians to have died for the sins of mankind and was later resurrected. According to Christian beliefs, Jesus sacrificed his life for all of mankind; Jackson, given her age, condition, and the obstacles she faced, risked her life for the betterment of her grandson. Her name Phoenix, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is that of “A legendary bird which, according to one account lived five hundred years, burned itself to ashes on a pyre, and rose alive from the ashes to live another period.” Jackson lives up to her mythical name in many ways, one of which was her transition from her time as a slave before the Civil War to a citizen thereafter. That social rebirth allows for her grandson to grow beyond what she could have ever become by getting an education. But her rebirth symbolized more than just hope for her grandson, it symbolized the start of equality and the unification of Southern blacks post Civil War. When looking up at the wall in the doctor’s office, she has an epiphany and dreams of a day when her grandson will go off to college; the birth of an idea that was unthinkable in her past. Stoller and Gibson further explain that: “The impact of racial oppression on black Families must be acknowledged, but it is also important to recognize the ways in which today’s elderly Blacks evolved new definitions of family from their everyday experiences and cultural legacies.” Phoenix Jackson’s rebirth and evolution will set the necessary pace for her kin so survive within a racist society with her sacrifices allowing her grandson the chance to carry out her legacy.
“A Worn Path” is a story of perseverance that directly relates the struggles of the character Phoenix Jackson to that of African Americans who lived in the United states in the time around the Civil War. However, Eudora Welty’s theme of persevering amidst inequality transcends race and culture because many of the hardships faced by African Americans were also once shared by the Italians, the Jews, and the Irish during their assimilation into American culture. Currently, times have changed and so do the oppressed searching for equality with focus now being put on Mexican and Middle Eastern Americans. Jackson’s path to her rebirth was arduous but still provides hope that her grandson will live in a brighter future in which the sacrifices for his kin will not have to be so great. The character Phoenix Jackson was more than just a fictional loving grandmother in the South, her character represents the determination that must be shared by all who face the injustices of inequality no matter what fears or obstacles are placed before them.