Literary Analysis: “A Worn Path”

In “A Worn Path” colors are used to emphasize the depth and breadth of the story, and to reinforce the parallel images of the mythical phoenix and the protagonist Phoenix Jackson. Eudora Welty’s story is rich with references to colors that are both illustrative and perceptive, drawing us in to investigate an additional historical facet of the story.

The surface story is a poor black grandma’s journey with an errand; to get medicine for her grandchild burned by lye. The colors used apprise the reader of another story. This parallel story uses color to tell us of a journey taken by a poor, black, disenfranchised people to completely own their legal and civil rights; they have been burned by lies. “A Worn Path” uses the journey of this one remarkable woman to serve as a lens to view the hardships of the African American people.

Welty tells the story with “some dreams and harassments and a small triumph or two, some jolts to [Phoenix’s] pride, some flights of fancy to console her, one or two encounters to scare her, a moment that gave her cause to be ashamed, a moment to dance and preen…” (quoted in Moberly, 109). The early harassments evoke symbols of slavery such as coming through the “dark pine shadows” in slave garb, “dark striped dress…an equally long apron of bleached sugar sacks…all neat and tidy” (Roberts, 95). The “chains about my feet” and the uphill climb is descriptive of literally being a slave in chains. Being caught in the “pretty green bush” (Rogers, 96) that turns out to be a thorn bush is a figurative hard worn path to equal rights, with unseen snags and pitfalls. “Purple stalks” (Rogers, 96) and the buzzard and through the “old cotton” (Rogers, 96) represents the mourning of the African American people, (Moberly, 115) the threats of death and extinction they lived with, and to lives spent gleaning cotton for others.

There is a goal, a destination a reason to struggle following this hard worn path. This goal has proved to be elusive as a hallucination; a free and equal life for all people.

The vision of the young boy serving marble cake is seen through a pearly cloud is “acceptable” (Rogers, 96) yet the hand Phoenix reaches out in acceptance grasps nothing, it is empty leaving “just her own hand in the air”. (Roberts, 96). David Piwinski described this as a reference to Phoenix as “Christ-like” and a reminder of “Christmas”. (40) Others explain this as a vision of her dead or alive grandson (Bartel, 288-290) or a reference to the “metamorphosis from a sturdy tree…from which Christ’s cross was built… to a parasitic shrub.” (Evans, as quoted in Piwinski, 41)

I think the marble cake has greater significance. The marbling done by a baker is accomplished by a drizzling of one kind of cake into a different kind of cake. Some is mixed, black and white together to make a new mixture, which cannot be separated again into black and white. Some exist harmoniously together without any change in the original identity of black or white. I think this represents the vision of a free society. Phoenix finds this “acceptable” (Roberts, 96). The African American population may have found this acceptable as well, and they also were left with a handful of nothing.

This next place is described as silver: “silver grass blew… little strings of tree silver in their dead leaves… past cabins silver from weather”. Silver is Phoenix often used as an allusion to money. GOTTA LOOK UP.

(NEEDS TRANSITION)

Because Phoenix seeks to make a trip to town equal to the trip of the white hunter, he exhorts Phoenix to “take my advice and stay home, and nothing will happen to you”. This is strikingly similar to the belittling refrain ‘stay in your place’ often enjoined to any underprivileged population throughout history. The exchange in the doctor’s waiting room shows assertiveness in Phoenix (Nixon, 949), who is described as “shining like a bright net” (Roberts, 98) that is translated into a strong, peaceful, passive civil disobedience in the civil rights era. In this scene the white “charity” is as much an obstacle as anything Phoenix has encountered on this journey. Today many claim that charity or welfare of the government towards the African American community has also been an obstacle to full participation in the free society. (reference,…)

Visualizing Phoenix Jackson is easily accomplished in the first paragraphs. The illustrative color words include; “bright…Negro…red rag…dark pine shadows (what she is coming out of)…dark striped dress…bleached apron… blue with age…golden color…illuminated by a yellow burning under the dark…still black”. (Roberts, 95) Eudora Welty infuses her colorful description of Phoenix Jackson with references to the mythical phoenix. Ovid offers this description of the phoenix, “They have also another sacred bird called the phoenix … The plumage is partly red, partly golden, while the general make and size are almost exactly that of the eagle.” (Godley, History of Herodotus) Phoenix Jackson and the mythical phoenix share a physical likeness. Phoenix “has her head tied in a red rag” and her image includes “skin…a golden color ran underneath”. The tapping of her only companion, an umbrella cane, is described as “meditative like the chirping of a solitary little bird.” This reinforces the bird-like image of Phoenix Jackson.

The mythical bird phoenix and Phoenix Jackson share three characteristics; resilience, courage to heal and resurrection through fire. The characteristic of resilience can be seen in the enduring longevity of the phoenix; most accounts ascribe 500 years to its lifespan. Phoenix Jackson shows both the attribute of resilience and that of physical longevity. Her age is not given numerically; however, we are immediately told “Her eyes were blue with age” (Roberts, 95), indicating cataracts. Her skin told the same story, “Her skin had a pattern all its own of numberless wrinkles” (Roberts, 95). The hunter presumes “you must be a hundred years old” and two ladies in town addresses her as “Grandma” (Roberts, 98) reinforcing the aged and ageless image.

With courage she embarks on this journey. The dauntless fortitude she presents in the face of numerous obstacles testify to her resilient character. Phoenix battles weariness as she climbs the first hill: “Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far” (Roberts, 96). She gives the hill a ‘severe look’ only when she has conquered it. Yet it is in her constitution to persist. The hunter on the road tried to dissuade Phoenix from her journey; he belittles her saying “Why that’s too far…Now you go home granny”. (Roberts, 97) Phoenix, disregarding the hunters disparaging tone, replied, “I bound to go to town”. (Roberts, 97)

Celtic lore suggests “The Phoenix …tears had immense healing properties.” (McGerr, unknown) Phoenix Jackson showed the courage to heal throughout her journey. She has made this trip for her grandson. The roles should have been reversed, the grandson caring for her. Instead we see that for two or three years Phoenix has fearlessly undertaken this perilous trek through backcountry briars, ominous roads and the unsettling city. She handled the green bushes snagging with equanimity; “Thorns, you doing your appointed work” (Roberts, 96). She boldly states her mission to the white hunter, “I bound to go to town mister, The time come around.” (Roberts, 97) Phoenix still has to negotiate the confusing city: “There were…crisscrossed [lights] everywhere…Phoenix would have been lost if she had not distrusted her eyesight and depended on her feet to know where to take her.” Phoenix Jackson exhibited remarkable courage in order to obtain the ‘soothing’ medication for her grandson.

Phoenix Jackson and the mythical bird have been born and reborn through fire: it is believed “The paragon of these birds is the phoenix …The fire blazes up, burning the phoenix who will be reborn from its ashes just as indifferent as it was in dying.” (Clement, 222) The bird rises from flames to preserve its own life and Phoenix Jackson rises to preserve the health and maybe the life of her grandson. Phoenix Jacksons’ story has three references to rising from fire, one historical, one actual and one implied; each of these has served to define her life. Historically Phoenix Jackson refers to the burning and rebirth of the country; “I was too old at the Surrender” (Roberts, 99) as a reason for her lack of education. But this does not impede her in the accomplishment of her task. Phoenix survives the threat of fire from the white hunter who lifts her out of the ditch. As the hunter points the gun, threatening fire, he asks “Doesn’t the gun scare you?” and she answeres “No sir, I seen plenty go off closer by, in my day, and for less than what I done,” (Roberts, 98). This is not a new threat of fire to her and this will not impede her in accomplishing the task. Like the mythical bird Phoenix must rise up at regular intervals to get the medication for her grandson. She must deny age and pains, fight nature, endure the white mans’ scorching treatment and conquer an increasingly confusing city to obtain medicine for the grandson whose throat has been seared and burned with lye.

Eudora paints a vivid, verbal masterpiece through the use of colors and words in “A Worn Path”. The woven tapestry of colors used brings to life the parallel stories of Phoenix Jackson’s journey and the ongoing movement of African American people. Colors are striking reminders of the corresponding myth of Phoenix Jackson and the Phoenix bird of mythology.

Works Cited

Bartel, Roland. “LIFE AND DEATH IN EUDORA WELTY’S ‘A WORN PATH’.” Studies in Short Fiction 14.3 (1977): 288-. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 26 Apr. 2011.

Clement, Catherine, “The Philosophy of Rapture, SYNCOPE”, University of Minnesota Press, 1994, p. 222

Dazey, Mary Ann. “PHOENIX JACKSON AND THE NICE LADY: A NOTE ON EUDORA WELTY’S “A WORN PATH.” American Notes & Queries 17.6 (1979): 92. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 26 Apr. 2011.

Herodotus, Histories 2. 73 (trans. Godley) (Greek historian C5th B.C.)

Keys, Marilyn. “A WORN PATH’: THE WAY OF DISPOSSESSION.” Studies in Short Fiction 16.4 (1979): 354. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 26 Apr. 2011.

McGerr, Angela http://www.rhiannon.ie/myths.htm

Moberly, Kevin. “TOWARD THE NORTH STAR: EUDORA WELTY’S “A WORN PATH” AND THE SLAVE NARRATIVE TRADITION”

Roberts, Edgar V., Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing, 4th Compact Edition, Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2008, print

Sykes, Dennis J. “Welty’s The Worn Path.” Explicator 56.3 (1998): 151. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 26 Apr. 2011.

Welty, Eudora. “A Worn Path.” Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. Ed. Edgar V. Roberts. 4th Compact Ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2008, pp. 95-100.

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