29 pages • 58 minutes readEudora Welty
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Eudora Welty’s short story “A Worn Path” is considered one of the author’s finest works and a classic in the repertory of American Southern literature. First published in 1941 as a stand-alone piece in The Atlantic Monthly, it was also included in her first short story collection, A Curtain of Green and Other Stories, published that same year. The story established Welty as a notable new voice in American literature. In addition to short stories, she wrote several novels, including The Optimist’s Daughter (1972), which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Welty was a native of Jackson, Mississippi, and her observations and deep familiarity with the land informed her writing style and the characters she portrayed. This guide cites the 1980 edition of The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty published by Harcourt Brace, which includes a preface by the author.
“A Worn Path” begins on an early December morning near Christmas, likely in the 1930s. Phoenix Jackson, an elderly Black woman of uncertain age, makes her way through the rural woods outside of Natchez, Mississippi. She is small and frail and has failing eyesight. She walks slowly across the frozen ground, supported by a small cane constructed from an umbrella, which she uses to guide her way.
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Despite her advanced age and wrinkled appearance, Phoenix retains a youthful fire. She announces that all the animals should keep clear because she “got a long way” to go (142). As she travels, she talks to herself “in the voice of argument old people keep to use with themselves” (143). Upon encountering a hill, she laments, “Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far” (143). She preservers and crests the hilltop. On the descent, her skirt gets caught in a thorny bush. Though it’s a struggle, she frees herself and continues onward.
At the bottom of the hill, she encounters a creek with a log in it. She closes her eyes and marches across the log, arriving safely on the other side. She reflects that perhaps she isn’t as old as she thought but takes a moment to rest regardless. As she sits on the bank, a boy with a slice of marble cake appears before her. When she moves to accept the cake, “there was just her own hand in the air” (143).
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Phoenix continues her journey, crawling under a barbed-wire fence and passing massive dead trees, “like black men with one arm, […] standing in the purple stalks of the withered cotton field” (144). She walks through the cotton field and then a cornfield, which she calls a “maze.” Among the stalks, she encounters a mysterious figure that she imagines is a dancing man. On closer inspection, Phoenix realizes it is only a scarecrow. She laughs at herself, saying, “My senses is gone. I too old. I the oldest people I ever know. Dance, old scarecrow, […] while I dancing with you” (144).
Continuing, Phoenix soon exits the cornfield. She passes by weathered and boarded cabins before coming upon a ravine. Drinking from the spring there, she reflects, “Nobody know who made this well, for it was here when I was born” (144).
After trekking across a mossy swamp, she meets a big black dog. Startled, she falls over into a nearby ditch, where she drifts, imagining that a dream visits her. Again, she reaches out her hand, only to find that nothing is there. Eventually, a white man—a hunter accompanied by his chained dog—comes upon the scene. He laughs at her predicament but pulls Phoenix to her feet.
The white man questions her, asking where she lives and where she’s going. When Phoenix explains that she’s going to town, he remarks, “Why, that’s too far! […] Now you go on home, Granny!” (145). When Phoenix remains true to her purpose, he laughs, saying, “I know you old colored people! Wouldn’t miss going to town to see Santa Claus!” (145).
Suddenly, Phoenix sees something fall from his pocket: a nickel. Quickly, she redirects the man’s attention to the stray black dog, then claims the nickel for herself. After scaring off the stray, the white man returns, pointing a gun at Phoenix, who stands steadfast and unafraid. The man says, “you must be a hundred years old, and scared of nothing. I’d give you a dime if I had any money with me. But you take my advice and stay home, and nothing will happen to you” (146). They go their separate ways.
Phoenix arrives in Natchez. First she passes cabins, then paved streets decorated for Christmas. She doesn’t worry about getting lost, confident that her feet will carry her safely to her destination. Eventually, she stands before a large building. After summoning her strength to climb the stairs, she recognizes her intended destination by the gold-colored document hanging above the doorway, which recalls something she once saw in a dream. Upon entering the room, her memory fails her. She stands there blankly, unable to recall why she traveled all this way.
The desk attendant grows impatient with Phoenix’s trancelike state, but a nurse recognizes her and asks if her grandson’s throat is any better. Phoenix remains silent until the nurse asks if her grandson has died. This snaps Phoenix from her trance, and she speaks. The exchange between Phoenix and the nurse reveals that Phoenix’s grandson swallowed lye two to three years ago and periodically suffers from a constricted throat that makes it difficult to breathe.
Phoenix apologizes for her lapse in memory, explaining, “I was too old at the Surrender […]. I’m an old woman without an education” (148). Her memory may fail, but her grandson remains unchanged. Unprompted, Phoenix details their situation: “We is the only two left in the world” (148). Though her grandson suffers, it never seems to dampen his spirits. She insists that “[h]e going to last” and that she won’t forget him again because she “could tell him from all the others in creation” (148).
The nurse hushes Phoenix and hands over the medicine, marking it down as charity. The attendant gives her a nickel out of sympathy, and Phoenix claims that she will use the two nickels she now has to buy a paper windmill for her grandson, who will “find it hard to believe there such a thing in the world” (149). Medicine and nickels in hand, she leaves the clinic and descends back down the stairs.
By Eudora Welty