Symbolism in Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path”

April 19, 2017 Teaching

Eudora Welty’s short story “A Worn Path” describes the journey of Phoenix Jackson. Phoenix is an elderly black woman who shouldn’t be making such a treacherous journey. But what drives her you might ask? The reader doesn’t find out until the end of the story that she makes this journey every year, “as regular as clock work” (34), to get medicine for her ailing grandson. Some might say that this story is about the love and endurance of a loving grandmother. But after being asked if her grandson is dead, she seems hesitant as if she is trying to gather her thoughts.

If her grandson were in fact dead, why would she be making this journey? Is Phoenix Jackson’s grandson really dead? Throughout Phoenix’s journey, she talks to the animals to stay out of her way and out from under her feet. She seems to have the most connection with the birds that are among her: the bob-whites and the mourning doves. Her command to the bob-whites to “keep out from under [her] feet,” indicates the struggle of her love and also her fear. “Her feet have slipped into the groove of habit, and she trusts them to take her where she wants to go” (Hardin).

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She trusts her feet more than her senses knowing that they will lead the way, rather than leaving it up to her memory, which tricks her, causing her to relapse on the memory of her grandson and whether or not he is really gone. She hears the mourning doves cry, “and it registers in Phoenix’s mind that it is “not too late” to mourn, as she begins the ascent out of the hollow: (Hardin). According to Sharon Hardin of Eastern Illinois University: “The mourning dove’s reminder perhaps still echoes in her mind near the top of the hill, and not for the first time at this point on the path, she feels compelled not to continue.

The mourning dove’s reminder of death and with it the futility of her going on pulls at her to stay and not go. She agonizes, “Something always take a hold of me on this hill – pleads I should stay”. Thoughts of death in revelatory flashes force their way from the back of her mind, but life, not death is the reality in which she desperately want to walk, and when she reaches the top of the hill, resisting death as reality in favor of life, she resolutely “turns[s] and [gives] a full, severe look behind her where she had come…” (Hardin).

At this point, the reader is given no implication as to what is causing this frail black woman to make such a long and hard journey or even where she is going; nor is her grandson brought into view until the end of the story when the nurse asks Phoenix how her grandson is doing. Phoenix seems not to hear what the nurse is saying and just “stares straight ahead” (34). After traveling such a long way through the woods and encountering difficult obstacles just to get medicine for her grandson, one would assume that her reasoning for the journey would be fresh on her mind.

Roland Bartel, who received a teaching award from the University of Oregon, perceived the incident in the doctor’s office in this way: “The assumption that the grandson is dead helps to explain Phoenix Jackson’s stoical behavior in the doctor’s office. She displays a “ceremonial stiffness” as she sits “bolt upright” staring “straight ahead, her face solemn and withdrawn into rigidity. ” This passiveness suggests her psychological dilemma – she cannot explain why she made the journey. Her attempt to blame her lapse of memory on her illiteracy is unconvincing.

Her lack of education is hardly an excuse for forgetting her grandson, but it goes a long way toward explaining her inability to articulate her subconscious motives for her journey. When the nurse asks whether the grandson is dead, Phoenix suddenly remembers and then overcompensates. In her imagination, she brings him back to life, her concluding comment sounding very much like the language of a person trying to revive the image of someone who has died: “I remember so plain now. I not going to forget him gain, no, the whole enduring time.

I could tell him from all others in creation”” (289). Whether her grandson is really dead or not, “Phoenix thinks he is alive” (Schmidt 37). This is what we must consider when trying to unsolve this puzzle Eudora Welty has created. “No evidence conclusively contradicts her, and she is able, when necessary, to distinguish clearly between her dream world and the outside world” (Schmidt 37). The indication of Phoenix’s grandson really being dead is also insinuated with Phoenix’s name being that of a mythological bird.

The mythical bird Phoenix lives for a period of 500 to 1,000 years. The myth varies from culture to culture but equivocally states that the bird builds a “pyre nest of aromatic branches and spices” (Phoenix Bird Mythology), sets the nests on fire and dies in the flames. Three days later, the bird rises from the ashes which is considered either the “birth” or “rebirth” of the bird (“Phoenix Bird Mythology”). The bird continues this cycle for eternity, always being reborn and continuing on its journey (Phoenix Bird Mythology).

Roland Bartel states: Previous critics have noted the many ways in which the renewal myth applies to the frail grandmother and to the grandson for whom she undertakes the hazardous journey each year. …Phoenix Jackson must make the journey to sustain her own life… The journey to Natchez then becomes a psychological necessity for Phoenix, her only way of coping with her loss and her isolation” (288-89). The relationship between the mythological bird and the journey of Phoenix seems to go hand in hand.

The bird represents life and death, as well as being reborn, and it appears to be a life or death situation with Phoenix Jackson and her journey to Natchez. The reader doesn’t get the feeling she is going to die on her journey, but while exiting the doctor’s office, the feelings of fulfillment overcomes the reader. This fulfillment comes from when she sees the gold framed document, stamped with a gold seal hanging on the wall. It “matched the dreamed that was hung up in her head” (34).

This sense of fulfillment sends a message of this being the end of her journey; this being the last time she will travel to Natchez. According to Roland Bartel: “Having at first made the journey to save the life of her grandson, she now follows the worn path each Christmas season to save herself. her survival depends on her going through a ritual that symbolically brings her grandson back to life”(289). Taking this statement to heed, it would only make sense that this is the end of her road, especially after having to remember her grandson in the doctor’s office.

He is beginning to slip from her memory and what used to keep him alive in her mind is falling from her grip. She is so used to making this journey that it is just a habit she is used to. The story of “A Worn Path” is centered on the love and endurance that Phoenix Jackson has for her grandson. Her journey seemed to symbolize the last journey she would ever make to Natchez, leaving behind her memory of her grandson as she walked out of the doctor’s office.

Her journey is what kept his memory alive, and with the onset of forgetfulness for her grandson, she comes to realize she can no longer keep his memory alive. Eudora Welty tells the reader this: As the author at one with the character as I tell it, I must assume that the boy is alive (“Is Phoenix…” 14). Although Eudora Welty did not intend on her story being perceived as it was by critics, she developed a well-rounded story of love and life within death and endurance that left her readers guessing; is Phoenix Jackson’s grandson really dead? Works Cited

Barnet, Sylvan, William Burto, and William E. Cain. “A Worn Path. ” An Introduction to Literature: Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. 16th ed. New York: Longman, 2010. 30-35. Print. Bartel, Roland. “LIFE AND DEATH IN EUDORA WELTY’S ‘A WORN PATH’. ” Studies in Short Fiction 14. 3 (1977): 288-290. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 16 Apr. 2011. Hardin, Sharon. “”A Worn Path”: A Journey Through the Real and the Not Real. ” Publication of the Illinois Philological Association. Summer 2000. Web. 16 Apr. 2011. “Phoenix Rising: Mythical Creature, Phoenix Bird Mythology, Myth Beast. Lady Gryphon’s Mythical Realm: Beasts of Myth/Mythical Creatures & Arthurian Myth and Legend Creatures. 2010. Web. 19 Apr. 2011. Schmidt, Peter. “The Anxieties of Authorship: Heroines and Women Artists in ‘A Curtain of Green'” The Heart of the Story: Eudora Welty’s Short Fiction. Mississippi: University of Mississippi, 1991. 3-48. Print. Welty, Eudora. “Is Phoenix Jackson’s Grandson Really Dead? ” The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews. New York: Vintage, 1979. 1-19. A Worn Path. ENotes. com, 2002. Web. 20 Apr. 2011.


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