Symbolism in A Worn Path by Eudroa Welty

“A Worn Path” by Eudora Welty is an interesting short story, full of symbolism. This story is about an old African American lady named Phoenix Jackson. The story does not directly tells us that she is old, but we know she is old because she forgets the reason why she went to the town. Welty writes about Phoenix’s journey through the woods of Mississippi to the town of Natchez to get medicine for her grandson. Along the way, Phoenix encounters several obstacles in her way, which have symbolism and on the things she says on her way to the town. Symbolism is shown on the obstacles she encounters on her way to the town. The obstacles show and represent racism for example on the big dead trees, cake, and mistletoe. In her story “A Worn Path,” Eudora Welty used symbolism to demonstrate that determination and will enabled Phoenix to survive in life no matter how difficult the struggle was.

The story shows that there could be still slavery or it has already passed, but we know that there is still racism. Slaves were escaping from their owners to free land where African American would be free. The town of Natchez Trace was an overland trail between Nashville, Tennessee, and Natchez, Mississippi. In the early 1800s, it was a “worn path”, which promoted progress for the African American slaves. Her journey was along a “worn path,” this means that she had walked this trip many times. This worn path is also symbolic for the pilgrimages made by all pilgrims who were on a quest, religious or otherwise, in all of history; the worn path is full of challenges and hardships along the way. The pilgrims were like the African salves because they also wanted to be free and do whatever they wanted to do. Many blacks probably wanted to go to Natchez to find their dreams and be free. Phoenix encounters many things on her way that symbolizes culture and how things used to be at her time.

There are symbols of slavery in this story by the obstacles she sees and says. Phoenix can barely negotiate the path, “Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far” (Welty). This quote is a symbol for the recent memory of slavery. This tells us that she used to be a slave and knows how hard those times were. Phoenix knows how chains feel on her feet because she probably had to be chained when she was a slave. She compares this because she is very old and can not walk more because she is tired of the walking. As she walks, she sees “Big dead trees”; this are be the black men from slavery. She encounters these trees after crawling under a barbed wire fence. Welty writes, “ Big dead trees, like black men with one arm, were standing in the purple stalks of the withered cotton field.” Welty uses the words black, withered, one arm, and cotton field. This shows the harsh times that Phoenix had to go through to become who she is today. The fact that the ‘black men’ have one arm conveys the idea of hardship, along with the withered cotton fields because slaves had to work long hours on the fields. Hard working slaves felt dead working on fields and that is why Welty uses the words “ Big dead trees”. Slaves probably looked dead tired working on the hot weather.

Phoenix also illuminates a boy giving her a cake and she reaches her hand out, but there is nothing and she still reaches her hand out. This shows a symbol of the unfulfilled promises made to black Americans struggling for equality with whites. Welty writes, “[W]hen a little boy brought her a plate with a slice of marble-cake on it she spoke to him. ‘That would be acceptable.’ But when she went to take it there was just her own hand in the air” (Welty). A marble cake is a mix of chocolate and vanilla. This shows how African American wanted to be together with the whites, but the racism would not let them be together even though they were all the same.

Phoenix also sees the plant mistletoe, which is an evergreen plant with white poisonous berries. It is perhaps a symbol of the attitude of whites toward blacks. This symbol shows that there was still many whites that hated African America people and treated them bad. Also, racism is shown on the white boy she meets when he helps her get up when she trip and can not get up. This is nice of him for helping her get up, but he lies to Phoenix when he says that he would give a nickel to her if he had one. Phoenix saw a nickel fall from the white boy’s pocket and knew he was lying to her. We see racism here because the boy also points his gun to Phoenix trying to scare her, but it does not work. He asked why she is not scare and Phoenix says, “No, sir, I seen plenty go off closer by, in my day, and for less than what I done.” She means that she has had plenty of guns point at her many times with no reason just because she is black. This symbolizes racism again because the boy is showing the power of white people toward the black.

Phoenix is definitely an outsider in this story. This is demonstrated in the way that Phoenix is treated by the white boy. It is clear that the white hunter points his gun at Phoenix on a whim, and also it is clear that Phoenix is not scared by this action. She arrives at the doctors building and the staff in the doctor’s assume Phoenix is a “charity case”. Then they verbally abuse her as she does not respond to their questions.

Another episode you will want to talk about occurs when Phoenix reaches town and tries to get the medicine she needs for her grandson. The staff and the doctors automatically assume she is a “charity case”, and then verbally abuse her as she does not respond to their impertinence. She is treated badly, and later on Phoenix herself makes it clear that she is an outsider not just because of her skin color but also because of her lack of education. The narrator says, “I am an old women without an education” (Welty).

“A Worn Path” is a Modernist work about a southern old women and her love for her ill grandson. Phoenix sacrifices all she has to get her grandson the help that he needs. Eudora Welty wrote the short story based on the southern way of life that she had observed. The modernist theme focused on overcoming and problem no matter what it took. Welty’s writing was a focus on the African American lifestyle in the South in the early nineteen hundreds. It was a tough road for the African Americans but they did what they had to. For example Phoenix encounters many things that Eudora Welty describes the readers to racism in the south. Welty symbolizes racism by the dead trees, the cake, and mistletoe. Also, racism is shown by the actions on the white people towards her.


Work Cited

Welty, Eudora. “The Atlantic.” The Atlantic Monthly. Feb. 1980. 22 May. 2014. .

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