Main Themes in a Worn Path Book
Love Conquers All
In A Worn Path Eudora Weltys plot is not all that clear in the beginning of her short story, but progresses as her character carries on against all of the overwhelming forces against her. In this short story a black elderly woman, Phoenix Jackson, must overcome the odds against her as she valiantly travels through many obstacles in order to contribute to the wellness of her grandson, for whom she is making this trip down a worn path. It is at this point that all of Weltys readers hearts open up to this poor, elderly woman as she makes an attempt to carry on her love for her grandson by taking a long journey down a familiar path in order to get medication that seems to help ease his sickness pains. However, there are many forces against Phoenix that Welty includes in her story in order to make Phoenixs adventure end in a victory. Poverty, old age, and her journey through the woods are all of the odds which Phoenix must overcome.
Poverty is a major hardship that most of us will never have to face, but in Phoenixs case, poverty is present everyday in her and her grandsons life. Since she is in this state of poverty, Phoenix is not able to enjoy lifes luxuries as others do and must make do with what she can. As she begins her journey, it becomes clear that she lacks the money to pay for transportation to and from town; therefore, she starts down her path carrying a thin, small cane made from an umbrella (132). Although Welty never really emphasizes what this is used for the reader can assume that she uses it because she does not have the money to buy the actual cane needed to help her walk properly. Another conflict dealing with poverty arouses when she feels it necessary to steal from a hunter she encounters in the woods. While the hunter walks away her sneaky fingers slid down and along the ground under the piece of money with grace and care they would have in lifting an egg from under a setting hen (134). Here Welty shows that Phoenix must do what she has to in order to survive. Even though it may not appear right, her poverty forces her to act in a way that she only knows best. For instance, when people have a barrier separating them between something they want, they are going to do what they can to achieve their goal no matter what stands in their way. In this case Phoenix is a poor woman and the money catches her eye. Acting on her instinct, she takes what is not hers and hopes that she can get away with it.
However, because of her perseverance and determination to better the health of her grandson, Phoenix journeys into town to receive charity that the doctors office provides her. This soothing medicine they give her is the reason why she makes this trip in the first place (136). However, she is looked upon as a charity case since she has no money to pay for the medication he needs and is given the medicine for free. All of these examples that Welty has described in A Worn Path allow her story to develop by making readers think about what she writes. Poverty is an important issue in todays society and it makes one think of all the fortunes they have. In this sense, Welty also makes one fear poverty by the way she addresses it. The images allow one to feel Phoenixs pain that comes along with poverty. Joyce Carol Oates backs up this statement by adding that by disciplining her [Weltys] vision in order to gain deeper penetration into the dark and lovely realities of the lonely human spirit and shaping her fiction so that each story should be something achieved… (362). Oates simply means that Welty goes beyond normal realities in order to grab the readers attention. Through poverty, Welty takes a worldwide problem and stretches it to a level in which the person reading her story feels saddened by the power she displays. To be old, poor, and a surrogate mother is a hard job, and Welty does a wonderful job of portraying this through the underlying problem of poverty.
Another overpowering element in A Worn Path is Phoenixs age. Welty writes that she has numberless branching wrinkles which illustrates that she has many years behind her (132). It is here that Welty begins painting a portrait in which the reader can envision scenes from her story. Because of her old age, Phoenix lets her feet do the walking while her mind runs free and wild. This is where her age seems as though it is a constant problem. As seen in the movies or in real life, old people often have a problem with keeping all of their thoughts straight. Not only is it dangerous, but it also adds to the flare of Weltys story. Now the odds have gone up against this poor, old woman. Welty carries on with this image of an old woman traveling a path as if she were sleep walking. But as she approaches the doctors office her feet knew to stop, and she appeared to have no recollection as to where she is going or what she is doing there (135). As she enters the office she stares off into space and for[gets] why[she] made [her] long trip (136). It seems that she has come all of this way and cannot remember a thing, except the daydreams she floated in and out of on her way there. However, one thing does stand out: the gold diploma seal in the doctors office (135). Here Welty allows Phoenix, an old woman, to recall the one thing that symbolizes something to her, a victory.
Phoenix may not recollect why she is there, but that certain document lets her know that she is where she needs to be. It also stands for a prize, her grandsons medicine. A good friend of Weltys adds that there are half-states, mixtures of dream and reality, or rapid shifts between the two worlds which are fact and fantasy (Vande Kieft 135). Ruth Vande Kieft also explains that A Worn Path is not the only story in which Weltys characters drift between dream and fantasy life (82-92). The odds against Phoenix are definitely taking their toll upon her. On an earlier page, 133, the author describes one of her movements relating to a baby. Is Welty trying to imply that Phoenix displays characteristics of a young child, not only in action but in thoughts as well? Some say that when someone becomes old, they start to revert back physically as well as mentally. As Welty shows the effects of old age, it is at this time that the conflicts become very apparent. This particular conflict is with herself. She is old and cannot stop the occurrences that take place to her body and mind as she grows older.
Another conflict that contributes to the plot is Phoenixs journey through the woods. An obvious factor is the trip to town. Since Phoenix lives out in the country, she must walk a far distance to encounter any kind of civilization. The title A Worn Path implies that Phoenix has made this journey many times. Here the reader gets the impression that these are her marks and that this path is worn because of her. As she walks through the dangerous terrain, Phoenix encounters a bush which fails to let her by: Thorns, you doing your appointed work. Never want to let folks pass, no sir (132). Welty describes this path that Phoenix chooses as a sort of obstacle course. She must stretch and shrink her body in order to get through the almost impassable obstacles. Even though the path may be worn, it is as if something is trying to hold her back. Maybe it is a way of telling her that her grandson may never get better and in actuality the medication she gets for him may not be working as it seems. Welty insinuates this by the conversation that takes place between the nurse and Phoenix. The nurse asks Phoenix if her grandson was any better since her last visit to the doctors office for medication (136). Now the reader can conclude that the medication may never cure him.
However, with her determination and motivation her feet keep on moving. Along with the thorny bushes, a barbed wire fence and a log over a creek put her in great danger, but Phoenix continues to proceed with her journey. After all of these setbacks, she then comes face to face with a white hunter. Welty uses this white hunter as a conflict because it is relevant to the time the story took place. The reader can assume from looking at the date above the story that this was a time which racism was a problem. Therefore, the hunter nags her a while then pulls his gun slowly up to her. Phoenix replies I seen plenty go off closer by, in my day… (135). What is exactly meant by this? One possibility may be that Phoenix feels the hunter caught her stealing.
Phoenix also gives the impression that she may have done this before and gotten caught. Why would Welty add this in her story? It can be assumed that the date again has strong significance. Well, the possibilities are endless. But, it is clearly seen that these encounters that she faces are not common in everyday life. What do all of these setbacks add to her story? They offer the end of the journey to be more courageous on Phoenixs part and they give the reader a sense of open-heartedness towards Weltys character. This journey through the woods shows Phoenixs love for her grandson. With all of the hardships on this journey love conquers all and Ruth Van Kieft states: There are no significant barriers to the expressive love of old Phoenix, and this is reflected also in her sense of familiarity with nature… (29). This familiarity allows the reader to feel that Weltys character has a deep love for nature. In the story, Welty includes many conversations with animals during her journey through the woods. Basically Weltys character appears comfortable with nature and does not see the journey as a burden, as does the reader, but as an adventure. Not only does her journey endanger her, but the fact that she is making this journey for the love of her grandson adds so much more to her effect of the story. Furthermore, these incidents indicate that Phoenix adapts to the dangers that face her, and allows the plot to then become clear.
Welty catches the readers attention by how real her short story seems. Even though many people may never experience Phoenixs problems, the descriptions and images she uses allows her to create a powerful story in which many feel they can relate to in some way. Her three major problems, poverty, old age, and some form of a journey, are all obstacles which all of her readers will one day face as they travel through their own paths.
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