Eudora Welty brings the story, “A Worn Path”, to life through the use of the character Phoenix Jackson and symbols. This story detail’s an elderly Negro woman’s journey to town, on a mission of love. Phoenix Jackson, an elderly Negro women is frail, old, and had many handicaps, she lived during trying times, because of her race, and faced many challenges while growing up.
The story is based on an elderly Negro women’s journey into town to get medicine for her sick grandson. Along the way she encounters physical challenges, obstacles and encounters danger. She climbed hills, crossed streams, crawled under barbed-wire fences, she faced dangers while out in the wilderness and a hunter who threatens her life with a gun. Phoenix’s ability to make the journey and overcome these challenges shows the dedication, devotion and the will power to endure hardship to finish her task. She made this journey weekly almost like a ritual. “Miss Eudora Welty often takes ritual action very seriously-especially the most simple and primitive rituals of home, or private one that comes from repeated performance of an action of love’,(Old Phoenix’s down the worn Path).(Vande Kieft 70)
I believe the conflicts were put in the story to show us the inner feeling of Phoenix. She was able to endure hardships and stay focused on the task at hand. This tells us while she was growing up she over came many obstacles. Usually Welty reserved for her black characters the functions of this vital, sure and faithful, ways of living of which modern man has either lost or denied. Phoenix Jackson represents the condition of the human race before “enfeebling” layers of civilization anesthetized it. Although primitive, Phoenix is centered in and directed toward the value of life, the path worn by habit of hope. She possesses that vitality without which, Krutch says, Faith would not be possible. (Turner, Harding 24) Using nothing more than details of an old Negro woman’s journey to city to get medicine for her grandson, but gives us a sense of human fortitude that is almost unbearable in its’ sad intensity. (Turner, Harding 262) The use of symbols brought color, fullness to the character in the story. It helps set the time, place and show hardships that developed her character. Mrs. Phoenix Jackson’s name represented A mythical bird that dies fire and is reborn from the ashes every five hundred years. I believe this is used to describe her life. Her family saw Phoenix as a symbol of hope, born into to slavery and a slave for eighteen years or more. After the war slavery was abolished. We can assume her family was killed during the war, or she just couldn’t locate them. Phoenix Jackson went on to have children.
This is evident because of her grandson. Probably her family went north to a better place to start a new life, with out the memories of the hard times.
Phoenix Jackson was set in her ways and change was difficult for her. In the story, along the path, she sees old boarded up buildings, barbed - wire fences, and the worn path. Nancy K. Butterworth Phoenix’s individuality, though, not preclude another, simultaneous, views of her symbolic representative view of her race.(Johnson 228) Wetly fiction occurs when Phoenix walks “past cabin, silver with weather, with doors and windows boarded shut, all like old under a spell sitting there,” and she says, “ I walking in their sleep,” Nodding her head vigorously” her strong identification with these “women” (the white women in town who ties her shoes is termed a “lady” suggest that they are the matriarchs of her own race whose dreams she views herself as proudly carrying on.’
According to Butterworth viewing Phoenix as an emblem of her people helps explain the symbols. The echoes of slave times can be heard in her chant as she heads up the hill, “seems like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far”,(CS, 141) as well as images of confinement and persecution, such as the barbed-wire fence, one-armed black men and the threatening black dog. These symbolic references could refer specifically to the difficulties encountered by the enslaved black people.(Butterworth 229)
The attempt to develop the character (Phoenix Jackson) was very successful. With the use of conflicts we understood and felt closer to the character. It showed us she was a very determined woman that was devoted to family, spiritual and had hope for the future. Phoenix overcame all the obstacles despite her age and physical state. The conflicts and the symbols allowed the reader to identify with the time period and all the atrocities that occurred against black people. The story brought us to a time and place in the south, that people would like to forget but we are reminded with the help of writers such as Miss.Eudora Welty. Bad events need to be remembered so they never happen again.
Ruth M. Vande Kieft Eudora Welty
Queens College (1962)
W.Craig Turner, Lee Emling Harding
Critical Essays Eudora Welty (1989)
Carol Ann Johnson “Eudora Welty A Study of Short Fiction” (1997)
“The Critics” Nancy K. Butterworth 225-234