The relevant story of love and perseverance transcends a deeper message relating to the welfare of Negro (after the Civil War). Rather than using direct criticism, the writer reveals the indifference by employing symbolism in a story of faith.
The character name Phoenix Jackson, echoes not only “death and rebirth” by the first name, but also a historical figure of popular democracy in 1830s—Andrew Jackson. Readers will be confronted with questions: “Who is this old, nearly blind Negro? Will the writer reveal a great past? Will she die in the end in a pitiful manner?
Why is she engaging herself in a tedious travel? As the story goes, and as the answers are revealed, rationalizations that may persuade readers that “racism is bad”, seem to be sugar-coated. The plot mainly illustrates a grandmother’s love towards her grandson, which is a universal feeling, whatever race you belong. This observation is parallel to what critics say of Welty’s style.
John R. Cooley says that it “fails to develop her racial portraits with sufficient sensitivity or depth,” (EuWN 11-13) and Nancy K. Butterworth adds that such “polemical demythologizings conflict with Welty’s persistent refusal to use fiction as a platform, particularly for political or sociological issues, as well as her downplaying and even disavowal of racial implications in her stories.” Nevertheless, the story may at least give the impression that Negroes are human beings with the same aspiration of a better society for the future generation.
The story exemplified the unaddressed needs of Negroes after the Civil War. Old Phoenix who lives in Old Natchez Trace of Mississippi, where neglect, not to mention discrimination is still lingering even after slavery was put to an end. Southern whites during that time adopt “Black Codes”, which regulate the rights of the newly-freedmen. The code situates Blacks with a subordinate position in the society.
The character Phoenix, though seemingly harmless because of old age, is not spared form these treatment of neglect and inferiority. Christian symbolism is also apparent in the narrative. For example, the fact that the story is set during the Christmas season has led some critics to associate Phoenix’s journey with that of a religious pilgrimage. (Gale Research,1998).
The untied shoelace at the beginning, which is later tied by a perfumed lady carrying gift boxes, symbolizes how little the well-to-do help the Negroes, but how that little help soothes the situation.
This further show that Negroes know that what is given and what they will continually ask for is a deserved one, “Thank you missy, I doesn’t mind asking…” (Welty 147). The author also illustrates how discrimination is not totally intentional, but that it is deeply rooted in the culture.
The woods represent the life Negroes are facing. The author inspires the readers through Phoenix, that though she seems inapt, she pursues her goal. She relies on her knowledge about the terrain. This provides the irony that the former slaves, who knew better than their white masters about the work and the place, do not get their proper due. Phoenix, even if almost blind, know the place so well, she could “own” it.
As she walks slowly, she warns the animals, “Keep out from under these feet… I got a long way” (142). The marble cake in a plate represents how the offer of Southern consolidation is just ‘a piece of cake’, when she replies, “that would be acceptable”. But then it appears be a rhetorical offer, “when she went to take it there was just her own hand in the air” (143). Indeed, the struggle to achieve human rights took a long while; discrimination persists even after the millennium.
The encounter with the white hunter shows an unfruitful play with the young man, “I know you old colored people! Wouldn’t miss going to town to see Santa Claus” (144). It also shows how Phoenix used the hunter’s boastfulness “Watch me get rid of that cur” (146), to get what she wants—the nickel. This is a representation of how Whites try to frighten the Blacks away from their struggles, “and then he laughed and lifted his gun and pointed it at Phoenix.” (146)
When Phoenix finally arrived at he doctor’s place, she stood watching “the document that had been stamped with the gold seal and framed in the gold frame, which matched the dream that was hung up in her head”(147). Later she directly clears the Negroes anticipation to avail other rights as good education, “I never did go to school, I was too old at the Surrender.” (148.)
Then, Welty reminds the reader that no matter how the trip took so long, the Negroes must not forget the reason of their struggle. Phoenix’ grandson will “hold his mouth open like a little bird,”(148) meaning that she will teach him to be a strong “Phoenix”.
He will benefit from all the hardships, “I remember so plain now. I not going to forget him again, no, the whole enduring time. I could tell him from all the others in creation (148). She then sets off to buy him a paper windmill, “He going to find it hard to believe there is such a thing in the world” (149). The windmill seems to be a symbolism of the travel Don Quixote.
Most Welty’s stories are placed in small communities of her native state, Mississippi, and carry the intimacy and intensity of narrow-range observation.
Marian Hauser further observes that many of her stories “are dark, weird and often unspeakably sad in mood, yet there is no trace of personal frustration in them, neither harshness nor sentimental resignation; but an alert, constant awareness of life as a whole, and that profound, intuitive understanding of life which enables the artist to accept it”
(6).. In portraying the old Negro woman who travels miles to bring a Christmas toy to her sick grandchild, Eudora Welty writes with warmth that holds no searing quality. (Feld 11-12). Of all her stories, A Worn Path comes closest to holding warmth and kindness. It is considered to be one of Welty’s most frequently studied works of short fiction.
Gale Research. “A Worn Path by Welty, Eudora.” 835 Penobscot Building Detroit. 1998. <http://www.enotes.com/short-story-criticism/worn-path-welty-eudora/introduction>.
Lewis, Thomas. “Textual Variants in `A Worn Path'”. Eudora Welty Newsletter (EuNW). Vol. 16 Winter 1992:11-13.
Marianne Hauser. “‘A Curtain of Green’ and Other New Works of Fiction.” New York Times Book Review, November 16, 1941, p. 6. Welty, Eudora. The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. New York: Harcourt, 1980.
Rose Feld. New York Herald Tribune Books, November 16, 1941, pp. 10, 12.
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