Toward the north star: Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path" and the slave narrative tradition

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Author: Kevin Moberly
Date: Winter 2005
From: The Mississippi Quarterly(Vol. 59, Issue 1-2)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,489 words
Lexile Measure: 1410L

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IF THERE IS A COMMON THREAD THAT RUNS THROUGH EARLY CRITICAL readings of Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path," it is the conspicuous absence of any discussion of the race of the story's protagonist, Phoenix Jackson. Neil Isaacs, for example, goes to extraordinary lengths to account for Welty's use of hue and color, but does not address the fact that the text contains as many references to black as it does red, gold, green and silver. Similarly, Saralyn Daly's careful paraphrase of Phoenix's first-paragraph description omits one word: Negro (134). Subsequent attempts to use Greek or Egyptian mythology to interpret the story also gloss over the racial significance of many of the story's incidents. Frank Ardolino, for example, reads Phoenix's encounter with the hunter as an allusion to the Persephone myth (5). While Ardolino is correct in stating that the encounter is structured around a motif of death and rebirth, his focus on Greek and Egyptian mythology leaves out the fact that Phoenix is an African American woman struggling to negotiate the wilderness of the depression-era South, and that in doing so, she is confronted by a white hunter who levels his shotgun at her in an obvious allusion to Jim Crow racial violence.

While later readings of Welty's story are more racially sensitive, many tend to apologize for Phoenix's treatment by the white citizens of Natchez, or to universalize her experiences, celebrating Phoenix's December journey as a triumph of her humanity rather than her race. Nancy Butterworth's "From Civil War to Civil Rights: Race Relations in Welty's 'A Worn Path'" is typical of this treatment. Although Butterworth acknowledges the racial significance of many of the story's incidents, she is suspicious of attempts to use Phoenix's race to understand the story. In particular, she criticizes the race-centered readings of Weky's African American characters that John R. Cooley offers in his book Savages and Naturals: Black Portraits by White Writers in Modern American Literature and that John Hardy offers in his article "Eudora Welty's Negroes." Faulting both critics for "frequently [falsifying] Welty's portrayals of black-white relations in earlier eras" (166), she accuses them of revisionist criticism, arguing that "[s]uch polemical demythologizings conflict with Welty's persistent refusal to use fiction as a platform, particularly for political or sociological issues, as well as her down-playing and even disavowal of racial implications in her stories" (166). (1) To address these concerns, Butterworth offers her own interpretation of the story's racial incidents--an interpretation that invariably serves to exonerate the story's white characters. She argues, for example, that the hunter's treatment of Phoenix "can be explained in terms of accepted social behavior of the rural South in the 1930s and 1940s, which would have allowed a young white man--a simple 'red neck' hunter--some degree of domineering byplay with the curious old black woman" (170). She then states that the hunter is guilty not so much of deliberate racism as of simply of "fail[ing] to comprehend the dire necessity of [Phoenix's] mission, mistakenly believing she is merely going to see Santa Claus" (171). In thus rewriting Phoenix's encounter with the hunter so that he appears "not ... so much malicious as insensitive" (171), Butterworth engages in what is arguably her own brand of revisionist criticism. She rewrites the racism Phoenix encounters so that it does not appear as a systematic, political strategy designed to disenfranchise African Americans but as an unconscious, almost quaint failure on the part of a handful of individuals, the white characters in the story who, according to Butterworth, "evince at least degrees of insensitivity toward Phoenix, but seemingly more out of callous incomprehension than deliberate cruelty" (172).

In this regard, Butterworth echoes the work of critics like Elmo Howell and Grant Moss, Jr., who also discount the significance of Phoenix's race. Howell, for example, states that Phoenix's journey "is exhilarating, not because she is a Negro or a Mississippian, but because she is a fine human being." Arguing that Phoenix's race serves no other purpose than to symbolize that she is closer to nature and thereby simpler than her white counterparts (32), he excuses the behavior of the hunter and the nurses, claiming that "[t]he whites who confront Phoenix reflect the usual attitude of their generation towards the Negro. To the outsider and to a later generation this attitude may appear offensive, but in the context of the story, the charity of the whites, meager as it is, is proffered in kindliness and received as such" (31). Grant Moss Jr. also excuses the white characters in the story. After declaring that it "could have easily been an old white woman in the same circumstances as those of old Phoenix ... an old Czechoslovakian, Greek or German peasant woman," he states that it would be "uncharitable to deny the humanity, the humaneness, and the reality of the other characters in the story simply because they are white Mississippians and they respond not as we have been led to believe they would--perhaps not as we would like them to do--but still as decent human beings" (149).

While these readings are an improvement over William Jones's 1957 statement that the "main reason that Miss Welty chose a Negro seems to be that only a relatively simple, uncivilized individual is worthy of representing the powerful force which inspires such love as hers for her grandchild" (57), they are nevertheless problematic to the degree that they attempt to universalize Phoenix's experiences. Indeed, in downplaying the significance of Phoenix's race and simultaneously apologizing for the treatment she receives at the hands of the white characters in the story, they not only ignore the historical context of the story--Southern racism in the 1930s--but ignore what is perhaps one of the fundamental questions of the story: why did Welty, a white woman writing in Mississippi during this time, construct the story as she did? Why, when she was imagining the story, inventing, in her words, "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 ... " (221), did she make Phoenix African American? Why is it important for Phoenix to caper across a log? What does the hunter mean, his shotgun, his dog? What is the significance of the cotton field, the scarecrow, or the abandoned cabins? If these are simply some of the things that an elderly African American woman was likely to encounter on a yuletide journey across the fields of 1930s Mississippi, why is each incident endowed with such a startling mixture of folklore, mythology and religion? What do any of these things have to do with how, in Welty's words, "the habit of love cuts through confusion and stumbles and contrives its way out of difficulty" (221)? Why is the story so coded?

While these questions may never be satisfactorily answered, it is important to recognize that Phoenix's race is not incidental to understanding the story. As James Robert Saunders states, "to believe that Phoenix just 'happened to be' an old black woman is to ignore an all too vital aspect of our nation's identity" (65). Drawing comparisons between "A Worn Path" and Margaret Walker's Jubilee, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, and Langston Hughes's Not Without Laughter, he argues that Phoenix plays a three-fold role as a child of nature, a protector of the innocent, and a symbol of persistence. In a passage that echoes Welty's statement that she was inspired to write "A Worn Path" after seeing a "solitary old woman like Phoenix" (221) walking across the fields in winter, Saunders links her to the trope of the African American mother in literature:

   One remembers the sometimes torturous position of black women
   during slavery and wonders how these traditions could have nurtured
   such a doctrine. In the midst of slavery, and for years beyond,
   there have been solitary women, black and oppressed through they
   might have been, who were rightfully declared as mothers to the
   world. (70)

There is, however, another connection between Welty's story and the texts Saunders mentions: all are indebted to what William L. Andrews calls the "'Long Black song' of black America's quest for freedom" (1), the slave narrative tradition. Perhaps the most obvious indication of this is the story's shape. As James Olney points out in "'I Was Born:' Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature," the slave narrative is linear and episodic in nature but often serves a larger purpose than detailing the autobiographical essentials of its subject (156). Welty's story fits nicely into this paradigm. Not only is its theme the hardship and realities of Phoenix Jackson's existence, but it is episodic in nature, and its content is designed to show the reader the nature of these hardships. In fact, if one reads Phoenix Jackson as Butterworth urges (168), not only as a mythological or allegorical representative of her race, a Phoenix, but as a real person, a Jackson, it becomes clear that Welty's story shows "the one same persistent and dominant motivation" (156) that Olney alludes to in his article: the desire to speak to and explain the hardships of a people through the lens of individual experience.

Thus, while "A Worn Path" may not be a true slave narrative, its incidents are nevertheless fraught with the subthemes of literacy, identity and freedom that Olney identifies:

   What typically happens in the actual narrative ... is that the
   social theme, the reality of slavery and the necessity of
   abolishing it trifurcates on the personal level to become subthemes
   of literacy, identity, and freedom, which, though not obviously and
   at first sight related matters, nevertheless lead into one another
   in such a way that they end up being altogether interdependent and
   virtually indistinguishable as thematic strands. (156)

This becomes clear at the end of the story, when Phoenix Jackson ascends the stairs to the doctor's office and sees his diploma hanging on the wall. As Welty indicates in her 1974 letter, this moment marks the culmination of Phoenix's journey. She writes, "Her Victory--Old Phoenix's--is when she sees the diploma in the doctor's office, when she finds 'nailed up on the wall 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'" (221). The diploma, however, takes on a greater significance when read in the context of the slave narrative tradition. Indeed, the way it is nailed to the wall and hangs in Phoenix's head ties it, as Marilyn Keys points out, to the suffering of the perennial journey around which Phoenix centers her identity (355). The diploma, however, is also a symbol of freedom. With its gold seal and frame, it stands in as the physical proof of a slave's freedom, a certificate of manumission. Moreover, the diploma symbolizes the hope of education and literacy. This becomes evident at the end of the story, when the reader learns that the purpose of Phoenix's journey is to fetch medicine for her grandson, who has swallowed lye and injured his throat. This injury, which, as Phoenix relates, makes it difficult for the boy to swallow and breathe, and therefore "help himself" (Welty 287), would also make it difficult for him to speak. In this sense, the grandson's injury is representative of the African American condition. As John Cooley points out, "Is not the absurdity of many black lives in America symbolized in [the grandson's] situation: the permanent injury, the racist condescension and occasional charity offered by white society, the promises of medication and relief (the white lie--itself another kind of lye)?" (131). Phoenix thus suffers the indignities of nature, the hunter, and the nurses to restore her grandson's voice, his ability to speak.

In this sense, the question of race and the question of voice are all but indistinguishable in "A Worn Path." Indeed, as Elaine Orr points out, Phoenix embodies "the double consciousness and duplicitous use of language that W. E. B. Du Bois postulated for African Americans" (63) as well as the "double-talk" that marks subversive women's writing. Constantly "re-figuring" herself to overcome the obstacles in her path, she "refuses to stay in (her) place, defying the hunter who misreads her and would send her home ... as well as the attendant and nurse who misname her a 'charity case'" (69). To Orr, then, Phoenix is "a figure for Welty's writing, for a subversive feminist knowledge that unravels worn assumptions and weaves new visions, for instance, of woman's identity as evolving out of self-interested fabular play rather than self-forgetful abnegation" (63). Yet if Orr is correct--if Welty does "[cross] boundaries with Phoenix" (70)--then to understand Welty's (and Phoenix's) voice in the story, the reader must understand the extent to which the story is indebted to what Henry Louis Gates, Jr., calls the "ur-trope" of African American Literature: "making the (white) written text speak with a (black) voice ..." (12). In this respect, the slave narrative tradition is a powerful heuristic tool with which to approach the incidents, images, and the symbolism of "A Worn Path." The predominant structure in the story, it not only determines the boundaries of what Orr calls the story's "fabular play" (63) but determines the course the story will take, the winding narrative path that Welty, in her 1974 letter, claims "might even do as a sort of parallel to your way of work if you are a writer of stories" (220). What follows is an attempt to read Welty's story in this context--to demonstrate the extent to which "A Worn Path" borrows from the slave narrative tradition, (2) and in doing so, perhaps to speak to a larger pattern of appropriation of African American motifs on Welty's part that critics such as Dean Bethea, Carol Manning and Ken Bearden have remarked upon.

Yet for all of this, "A Worn Path" does not, as Olney says slave narratives should, begin with the phrase "I was born" (153). If anything, Phoenix Jackson seems not to have been born but to exist beyond the boundaries of time. Although it is clear that she is old, none of the characters, not even Phoenix herself, seem to know exactly how old she is. When she meets the young hunter, for example, he asks, "How old are you, Granny?" She replies, "There is no telling, mister ... no telling" (282). After being frightened by the scarecrow, she says, "I too old. I the oldest people I ever knew" (279). In the doctor's office she reveals that she "was too old at the Surrender" (287). As Saralyn Daly points out, this indeterminancy indicates the depth of her experience (134). It also, however, recalls a circumstance Frederick Douglass acknowledges in his slave narrative. "I have no accurate knowledge of my age," he writes, "having never seen an accurate record of it" (13).

The time span of Phoenix's journey is equally ambiguous. Although the reader discovers Phoenix walking in the early morning and assumes that she arrives in Natchez that afternoon, there are no details that date her journey until she comes to the paved streets and the electric Christmas lights of the town. Her clothing, for instance, is historically ambiguous. Like the "path through the pinewoods" on which she begins the story, there is nothing about the "dark striped dress" (275) she wears, the "long apron of bleached sugar sacks" (275), or the red rag tied about her head that suggests modernity. In fact, as Grant Moss points out, the reader discovers Phoenix wearing the traditional garb of slavery. (3) Even her shoes, which are arguably the most modern item of her attire, seem more a hindrance than a convenience. In this respect, it is as if Phoenix Jackson is making two journeys at once: a literal journey from the countryside to the town, and a temporal journey whose details become more concrete as she moves closer to the site of her immolation, the Southern cotton town of Natchez (Bethea 36). Phoenix thus emerges from the trees not only, as Robert Saunders points out, as a representative of the trope of the African American mother figure but, as the title of Welty's story suggests, as the embodiment of the tradition of the African American journey to freedom, the slave narrative. In this sense, it is both ironic and appropriate that Phoenix does not reply to the nurse who insists, "We must have your history" (285). The reader already knows her history. As the second nurse remarks, it has been tapped out by her steps and cane "just as regular as clockwork" (286) in her journey down the Natchez Trace.

It is important, however, not to draw simple parallels between the movement in Welty's story and the pattern of South to North migration that Ralph Ellison says is fundamental to African American experience (372). For one thing, it is clear that Phoenix's journey does not take her north but south to the southernmost terminus of the Natchez Trace, Natchez itself. For another, her journey does not lead her to freedom but to successive stages of bondage. This becomes clear when one examines the first incident in "A Worn Path" that explicitly recalls a trope of the slave narrative tradition, Phoenix's log crossing. Phoenix says, "Now comes the trial," then proceeds to cross the log with her eyes shut "like a festival figure in some parade" (277). Her actions recall the darkness, the suffering, and the carnival stereotype of another famous appropriation of the motif, Eliza's crossing in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Phoenix's crossing does not deliver her to freedom, however, but, as Saralyn Daly notes, across "the waters [and] into the land of the dead" (135)--into the site of Southern slavery itself, a cotton field bounded by barbed-wire fences. Thus Phoenix's log crossing is more like a middle passage than a flight to freedom. Phoenix responds to this change in circumstance with an almost animal desperation, saying, as she attempts to pick her way through the fence, that "she could not let her dress be torn now, so late in the day, and she could not pay for having her arm or leg sawed off if she got caught fast where she was" (278).

The bird imagery that proceeds Phoenix's crossing also suggests a descent into slavery and bondage. At the beginning of the story, for example, the tapping of Phoenix's cane explicitly finks her to a symbol of freedom and voice, "the chirping of a solitary little bird" (275). In the third paragraph, she encounters a second type of bird, the bob-white or quail. Unlike the "foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons" (276), and other animals (4) she mentions as she passes through the quivering thickets, Phoenix adopts the bob-whites as a sort of totem. "Keep out from under these feet little bob-whites," she says, "Keep the big wild hogs out of my path. Don't let none of those come running my direction" (276). She then crosses into a hollow where "the cones dropped as light as feathers" (276) and comes across a mourning dove. The allusion to death and grief implicit in the name of this bird, and the narrator's ironic comment, "it was not too late for him" (276) does not fully register until the next paragraph when, climbing a hill, Phoenix makes an allusion to bondage. "Seem like there is chains about my feet," she says, then descends through the oak trees to find herself caught by a "thorny bush" (277). Struggling to free herself, she registers a sense of deception: "Thorns, you doing your appointed work. Never want to let folks pass, no sir. Old eyes thought you was a pretty little green bush" (277). In this sense, the bird imagery that proceeds Phoenix's approach to the log crossing rehearses a pattern that becomes increasingly obvious as Phoenix negotiates the successive obstacles in her path. In moving from the flitting song bird, to the furtive bob-white, to a bird that has significations not only of death but of self sacrifice, Phoenix descends into successive stages of bondage and rehearses the figurative death and rebirth of her namesake.

This conclusion is supported by the fact that Phoenix encounters a generation of African American men after crossing the creek. She comes across the first when she stops to rest on the opposite bank, beneath a tree. There she has a vision of a child bearing a piece of cake. Although Roland Bartel claims that the boy is her deceased grandson and interprets the incident as indicative of a "desperate need for companionship ... demonstrated not only by this vision but also by her practice of talking to animals and objects" (290), the matter is complicated by the fact that Phoenix encounters two more specters as she moves through the fields. She sees the second specter after passing through the barbed-wire fence. In a clearing, she spots a grove of "[b]ig dead trees, like black men with one arm ... standing in the purple stalks of the withered cotton field" (278). These trees not only stand amidst fields of purple, a color associated with African American mourning, but are bound to the cotton by a buzzard--a bird that William Wells Brown explicitly associates with slave owners in his narrative (233). Phoenix encounters the third specter immediately after that. Crossing from the dead cotton into a field of corn, she sees "something tall, black, and skinny there, moving before her" (279). Assuming that it is a spirit, she asks, "who you be the ghost of? For I have heard of nary death close by" (279). She reaches out to touch it, then realizes it is a scarecrow. In itself, this is significant because scarecrows are erected to frighten away birds. Taken together with the vision of the child and the black men she sees in the grove of trees, however, the presence of the scarecrow completes a progression of imagery that links childhood, crippling labor, and death. Phoenix seems to sense this as she moves through the field, constantly watching for physical, political, and spiritual threats--charging bulls, venomous two-headed snakes, and ghosts. Struggling to negotiate these obstacles, she loses sight of the path momentarily at the edge of the cornfield. She says, "Through the maze now" (279), and in doing so, epitomizes the experience of the first generation of African Americans born and lost to slavery.

The next stage of Phoenix's temporal journey involves the escape, pursuit, and violence that typify descriptions of the slave experience in the years preceding and immediately following the Civil War. On the textual level, this is signaled by several incidents arranged to mirror the obstacles Phoenix encounters during her log crossing and her journey through the fields. The first of these incidents occurs at the edge of the cornfield when she dances with the scarecrow. After shaking off the fingers of the corn with their significations of field labor, and the significations of death and old age that the scarecrow brings with it, she emerges from the maze-like fields of slavery onto a path colored in the hues of blood and money, "a wagon track where the silver grass blew between the red ruts" (280). Phoenix marks this transition when she says, "This the easy place. This the easy going" (280). This statement, which can be read as an inversion of the statement Phoenix makes before crossing the log, (5) marks the beginning of the next stage of her journey. As if to signal this, Phoenix once again encounters quail. As she passes through a sort of slave quarters, a series of "cabins silver from weather, with the doors and windows boarded shut, all like old women under a spell sitting there," she glimpses the birds "walking around like pullets, all dainty and unseen" (280). "I walking in their sleep" (280), she says, implicitly recognizing her connection to the boarded-up slave cabins and the people who once inhabited them. She then comes to water for the second time in the story. She finds a spring, bubbling up through a sweet-gum log. Drinking from it, she declares, "Nobody know who made this well, for it was here when I was born" (280). In thus moving from the scarecrow, which she implicitly associates with age and death, to the spring, Phoenix marks the completion of another stage in the cycle of bondage and freedom that is repeated throughout Welty's story. She undergoes a textual rejuvenation, an emancipation from the fields, the barbed-wire fences, and the slave cabins that stand abandoned as she passes them.

Phoenix has no sooner accomplished this than the mood of the story changes. The track descends into a swamp, then joins a road that, covered by live-oak trees, is "as dark as a cave" (280). Phoenix has only gone a short distance along the road when a large black dog surprises her and knocks her off her feet. As Daly points out, this incident marks one of the most puzzling moments of the story. On one hand, the sudden appearance of the dog and the fact that it forces Phoenix into a ditch recalls what, to James Olney, is one of the most recognizable tropes of slave narratives: "description of patrols, of failed attempt(s) to escape, of pursuit by men and dogs" (153). On the other hand, the fact that the dog is black, and that Phoenix treats it as a spectator rather than a threat, suggests that like the succession of black objects she encounters when crossing the field, the dog is somehow emblematic of African American experience. This interpretation is supported by the fact that Phoenix's encounter with the dog is very similar to another of the story's most enigmatic moments--Phoenix's vision of the African American child as she stops to rest after crossing the log. Not only do both come at the heels of a water crossing but both mark a change in the physical nature of the path itself. (6) As such, it is not coincidental that as she lies half-delirious in the ditch, Phoenix repeats the gesture she made after seeing the vision of the child. She reaches out only to find that nothing is there: "Down there, her senses drifted away. A dream visited her, and she reached her hand up, but nothing reached down and gave her a pull" (281). Like the vision of the child, then, the dog seems to symbolize the dream of a better kind of companionship, a relationship that is very different from the visions of African-American men Phoenix encounters as she crosses the cotton fields, and the very real treatment that she and the dog receive when the hunter arrives on the scene carrying a bag stuffed with a bob-white "with its beak hooked bitterly to show that it was dead" (282).

This detail, as well as the fact that Welty initially introduces him as a "white man" (281), underscores the racial tensions in the scene that ensues. Indeed, although the hunter lifts Phoenix from the ditch, it soon becomes clear that he does not mean to release her from bondage. Instead, he interrogates her about her age, home, and destination, almost as if taking her into custody. As his dog growls at the black dog, he even demands that she turn back. "Now you go on home, Granny!" he says, becoming more and more insistent until he finally raises the question of race," I know you old colored people! Wouldn't miss going to town to see Santa Claus!" (282). In this sense, the hunter conforms to the trope of the slave hunter that Olney describes above. With his dog at his side, his shotgun, and a bag stuffed with the birds Phoenix has adopted as her totems, he does not so much rescue Phoenix from the ditch as pull her from her hiding place, capturing her as effectively as the brambles and the barbed wire earlier in the story.

The continued presence of the black dog, however, brings a measure of equality to the scene. Running free, it provides a counterpoint to the hunter's dog, which is leashed. Moreover, the stray black dog's presence in the background allows Phoenix to face the hunter not as a recaptured slave but as his racial and socioeconomic counterpart. Old, African American, and female, she is his material equal in all respects except for the two that matter most: the twin poles of power and economics that are symbolized by the hunter's shotgun and the nickel he drops. Separate from but equal to the hunter, Phoenix tellingly uses the very symbol of her racial difference, the black dog, to secure a further measure of equality. "Git on away from here, dog! Look! Look at that dog!" (282), she cries, at once disavowing the stray dog and celebrating the characteristics that make it most threatening to the hunter: "He ain't scared of nobody. He a big black dog.... Sic him!'" (282). As the hunter and his dog give chase, Phoenix slowly bends down to pick up the nickel he has dropped. Welty describes the theft as follows:

   the lids stretched down over her eyes, as if she were doing this in
   her sleep. Her chin was lowered almost to her knees. The yellow
   palm of her hand came out from the fold of her apron. Her fingers
   slid down and along the ground under the piece of money with the
   grace and care they would have in lifting an egg from under a
   setting hen. Then she slowly straightened up, she stood erect, and
   the nickel was in her apron pocket. A bird flew by. Her lips moved.
   "God watching me the whole time. I come to stealing." (283)

The imagery of this passage is among the most enigmatic in the story. On one hand, the appearance of the bird seems to signal Phoenix's success: to signify that in stooping to retrieve the coin, she will rise to freedom in much the same way that Frederick Douglass rises after his fight with Covey. (7) On the other hand, the appearance of the bird is linked to Phoenix's admission of guilt. It is as if the bird becomes the physical incarnation of the remorse she feels.

The hunter also seems to feel that something untoward has happened. When he returns to her, he reports a victory over the black dog, saying "Well, I scared him off that time" (283). His statement, however, implies that his victory is fortuitous at best, that there have been times when he has been less successful at driving away all that the black dog symbolizes. As if to reassert himself, he levels his shotgun at Phoenix. "Doesn't the gun scare you?" he asks. Phoenix replies, "No, sir, I seen plenty go off closer by, in my day, and for less than what I done" (283). The hunter then relents. "'Well, Granny,' he said, 'you must be a hundred years old, and scared of nothing. I'd give you a dime if I had any money with me. But you take my advice and stay home, and nothing will happen to you'" (283-84). This statement is significant for several reasons. Coming at the end of the scene, it reinforces the point Welty makes by describing how Phoenix's posture changes after she takes the nickel. Writing that Phoenix "straightened up," then "stood straight and faced [the hunter]," then "[held] utterly still" (283), Welty underscores the very traits the hunter celebrates: Phoenix's age and fearlessness. The language of the passage, however, also underscores the fact that although Phoenix has risen, she has become as stiff, still, and rigid as the last character to whom a comment about her age was directed: the scarecrow. In this sense, the sudden appearance of the songbird as Phoenix pockets the nickel takes on a second meaning. It is as if in stealing the coin, Phoenix frightens the bird away--as if in using the black dog to secure the price of her freedom from the hunter, she scares off the very thing to which freedom is most precious. In this regard, the sense of guilt Phoenix expresses echoes the pragmatism and shame that William Wells Brown expresses in his narrative after sending a freeman to jail to be whipped in his place (223).

The hunter's final statement also speaks volumes about the complexities of the race relations that lie beneath the scene. In particular, the fact that he lies to Phoenix about the money he carries is significant when one realizes that he was the one who pulled Phoenix from the ditch in the first place--who effectively set her back on her feet after her journey through the fields of slavery. What the hunter does not realize, however, is that Phoenix rises twice during the course of the scene, and that she does so the second time not with his help but at his expense. Clearly a Jim Crow figure, the hunter's treatment of Phoenix is thus emblematic of the political and economic policies that recognized the rights of African Americans on one hand while simultaneously working to reinforce their status as second-class citizens on the other. In this respect, Phoenix's encounter with the hunter underscores the fact that the nature of the obstacles she faces has changed. As Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., point out in the introduction to their collection of essays, The Slave's Narratives: Texts and Contexts, the focus of African American writing shifted from bondage to race after the abolition of slavery:

   Once slavery was formally abolished, no need existed for the slave
   to write himself into the human community through the action of
   first person narration. As Frederick Douglass in 1855 succinctly
   put the matter, the free human being "cannot see things in the same
   light with the slave, because he does not, and cannot look from the
   same point of view that the slave does." The terms of opposition
   here are 'slave' and 'free human being,' not black and white. The
   nature of the narratives, and their rhetorical strategies and
   import, changed once slavery no longer existed. (xiii)

Much of the same shift can be seen in Welty's story. No longer a matter of crossing physical barriers, or avoiding entrapment by briars and barbed wire, the opposition that Phoenix encounters after she moves from the path to the road is racial in nature. As is evident in the hunter's reaction to the black dog, the purpose of this opposition is not to keep her in bondage so much as to drive her away--to keep her from the places where, as a black woman, she does not belong. This becomes clear when Phoenix and the hunter part company. "I bound to go on my way, mister" (284), she says. Then, in the spirt of segregation, Phoenix heads off in the opposite direction, walking south towards the outskirts of Natchez even as the sound of the hunter's shotgun follows her.

As Phoenix approaches the town, she encounters the next generation of African American youth in the "[d]ozens of little black children [that] whirled around her" (284). Coming to her within sight and smell of water, the Mississippi River, with "[t]he shadows [hanging] from the oak trees" (284), the tree and water imagery surrounding the children links them to the specter of the boy Phoenix glimpses after crossing the log, as well as to the black dog that surprises her as the road descends through a swamp. As such, their appearance signals the fact that the character of the path is once again changing. (8) The imagery surrounding the children, however, also makes it clear that their shadowed world of wood-smoke and cabins is distinct and segregated from the shining town of Natchez with its ringing bells. In fact, the extravagance of the town's paved streets and strings of Christmas lights "all turned on in the daytime" (284) is so different from what Phoenix knows that it overwhelms her time-worn eyesight.

These differences are nowhere more apparent than when Phoenix stops to ask a passing shopper for help tying her shoes. This incident, apparently taken from Welty's life (Howell 30), is a study in contrasts. On one hand, Phoenix symbolizes rural poverty. With her red head rag, her shoes untied, and a cane appropriated from the shaft of a discarded umbrella, her appearance not only speaks to the hardships she has seen, but as Dean Bethea says about her apron, "to the terrible legacy of the Jim Crow laws, which in many Southern towns prohibited most black men from wearing white shirts during the week and required all black women to wear aprons in public as humiliating signs of their continued oppression" (36). On the other hand, the shopper symbolizes the wealth of white Natchez at Christmas time. With perfume "like the red roses in hot summer" and "an armful of red-, green- and silver-wrapped presents" (284), she embodies the material excess of the town. The scene that ensues is significant for what it says about the nature of the assistance Phoenix receives while in Natchez. Indeed, although Phoenix's favor requires the shopper to "put her packages down on the sidewalk beside her" (285) and kneel in front of Phoenix, she hardly presents a model of charity, Christian or otherwise. The woman not only ignores Phoenix at first, but when she does understand what Phoenix wants, her acquiescence is grudging at best. "Stand still then, Grandma" (285), she says, echoing the way the hunter addresses Phoenix. Phoenix, on the contrary, is obsequious and voluble. "Please, missy, will you lace up my shoe?" she asks, then explains, "See my shoe.... Do all right for out in the country, but wouldn't look right to go in a big building"(285). The thanks Phoenix offers is every bit as effusive: "'Can't lace 'em with a cane,' said Phoenix. 'Thank you, missy. I doesn't mind asking a nice lady to tie up my shoe, when I gets out on the street'" (285). Thus, although the shopper does lace and tie Phoenix's shoes, the exchange is hardly equal, willing, or reciprocal. As her insistence that Phoenix "stand still" underscores, the charity that she offers Phoenix is double-edged. Although it enables Phoenix to climb up the stairs to the doctor's office and thus to move, as Orr points out, between the downstairs and the upstairs of "Welty's clear imaging of the race/class hierarchy" (69), it nevertheless requires Phoenix to construct herself as subservient to the white woman and her armload of packages.

Much the same can be said for the charity Phoenix receives in the doctor's office. Inspired by the sight of the diploma, with its three-fold significations of freedom, literacy, and identity, Phoenix announces her presence as she comes through the door. "Here I be," she says with a "fixed and ceremonial stiffness over her body" (285). The attendant, however, immediately stereotypes her. Assuming that Phoenix is "A charity case," she begins to interrogate her, using much of the same language that the hunter used to interrogate Phoenix. Thus it is not surprising that Phoenix refuses to speak. Although Roland Bartel sees Phoenix's silence as evidence of her senility (289), it is clear that there is more to her silence than the forgetfulness she pretends a few passages later. For one thing, there are indications that Phoenix is conscious of what is happening. Her face twitches in response to the attendant's questions and she sits down when the nurse enters and asks her to do so. For another, Phoenix maintains her ceremonial stiffness even while sitting--a point that Welty again underscores by describing Phoenix's posture three times. She writes, "The old woman sat down, bolt upright in the chair," then "But Phoenix only waited and stared straight ahead, her face very solemn and withdrawn into rigidity," then "With her hands on her knees, the old woman waited, silent, erect and motionless, just as if she were in armor" (286). Taken together, the imagery of these three sentences not only recalls Phoenix's reaction when confronted with the hunter's gun but escalates to match the tone of the nurse's repeated questions about her grandson. In this sense, Phoenix's silence is not humorous, as Butterworth and other critics have claimed, but rather a conscious act of civil disobedience. (9) In refusing to speak the language of the white women, she refuses to participate in a system that valorizes the nurse and the attendant at the expense of her identity.

In this context, it is telling that it is only when the nurse raises the possibility that Phoenix's grandson is dead that "then came a flicker and then a flame of comprehension across her face, and she spoke" (287). The fire imagery of this sentence signals the death of Phoenix's pride on one hand, and the death of her mythological namesake on the other. As becomes clear in the following passage, Phoenix not only relinquishes the obstinacy that has carried her across the creek, through the fields, and past the hunter, but much of what the diploma with its gold frame represents:

   Then Phoenix was like an old woman begging a dignified forgiveness
   for waking up frightened in the night. "I never did go to school, I
   was too old at the Surrender," she said in a soft voice. "I'm an
   old woman without an education. It was my memory fail me. My little
   grandson, he is just the same, and I forgot it in the coming."

Phoenix thus consumes herself for the sake of her grandson. In admitting her ignorance, her age, and the failure of her memory, she gives the nurse and the attendant the answers they want. In doing so, however, Phoenix is only playing a role. In adapting the details of her life to fit the expectations of the nurse and the attendant, she follows in the footsteps of a tradition of African American writers like Harriet Jacobs, who, as Hazel V. Carby relates, also create fictional personae for a predominantly white audience (67). Phoenix thus rewrites herself. In portraying herself as a slave who was "too old at the Surrender" (287) for education, she reconstructs her journey in such a way that what is invariably left out, what she "forgot in the coming" (287), are the hardships and the racial injustices she has suffered.

Yet while Phoenix's account of herself might satisfy the nurses, it is very different from what the reader has witnessed in the course of the story. The result, as Orr points out, is that the reader is forced to examine the difference between what he or she has been told of African American experience, and what he or she has seen of it: a difference that could be quite pronounced, especially in the context of race relations in the South of the 1930s when Welty wrote the story (69). The fact that it is Phoenix's own testimony that necessitates this reevaluation only makes the task more imperative. Indeed, in order to rectify the disparity between the way Phoenix constructs herself and the way the story represents her journey, the reader must reevaluate the process of construction itself: the literary transaction that, as Orr argues, "plays upon our 'knowledge' of 'others' to resist the 'wornness' of old scripts" (57). As Orr states, the result is the that the story resists closure and unified interpretations and instead challenges the reader "both to unlearn and to relearn, that is, to enter the process of creation" (57).

To the women in the doctor's office, however, Phoenix's performance is nothing more than a transaction. As if to underscore this point, they not only reward Phoenix with medicine for her grandson but give her a second nickel--a second coin that, taken together with the first, recalls the toll that Charon charges to ferry the dead cross the river Styx. It is telling that as the nurse completes the sale, dutifully recording the details of it in her ledger, she does not want to hear what Phoenix has to say: "The nurse was trying to hush her now.... 'Charity,' she said, making a check mark in a book" (288). In this sense, it is not violence that poses the greatest threat to Phoenix, natural obstacles, or barbed-wire fences, but the charity that the white characters in the story offer her: a charity that requires that she immolate herself--steal or sell herself completely into their power in return for a token measure of assistance. That Phoenix does so to save her grandson speaks to the way that, in Welty's words, the "habit of love cuts through confusion and stumbles and contrives its way out of difficulty" (221). This becomes clear in the following passage, in which the two dominant symbols of freedom in the story, the songbird and the sweet water of the spring, come together in Phoenix's assertion that her grandson is "going to last":

"My little grandson, he sit up there in the house, all wrapped up, waiting by himself," Phoenix went on. "We is the only two left in the world. He suffer again and it don't seem to put him back at all. He got a sweet look. He going to last. He wear a little patch quilt and peep out holding his mouth open like a little bird. I remembers so plain now. I not going to forget him, no, the whole enduring time. I could tell him from all the others in creation." (288)

This passage is ironic, however. Indeed, if one reads the story as Welty suggests, as a successful errand of hope, it is clear that by bringing medicine to her grandson, Phoenix must ultimately sacrifice her reason for being. By bringing him the ability to sing and therefore to escape, Phoenix ensures that she will lose him. She thus consumes herself for the sake of her grandson, and in doing so, embodies of one of the cruelest ironies of the slave narrative tradition: the fact that for African Americans such as William Wells Brown and Harriet Jacobs, love and freedom often served separate masters.

Welty underscores this irony with the last image of the story. "This is what come to me to do," Phoenix declares as she prepares to leave the doctor's office, "I going to the store and buy my child a little windmill they sells, made out of paper. He going to find it hard to believe there such a thing in the world. I'll march myself back where he waiting, holding it straight up in this hand" (289). Purchased in part with the nickel Phoenix takes from the hunter and in part with that nickel the doctor's attendant pays her for her performance, the windmill is not the Christmas Star (Isaacs 77) or Don Quixote's Windmill (Daly 134) but what William Wells Brown calls "truly the slave's friend" (129): the North Star. Phoenix thus purchases life from death. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr., says of African American writing in general, she uses the twinned coins of racial oppression--the threatened Jim Crow violence of the hunter, and the degrading, ersatz charity she receives in the doctor's office--not to buy herself passage to the underworld of racial oppression but instead to imagine something that is "hard to believe that there such a thing in the world" (289): a North Star made out of paper. This is Phoenix's focus in the final moments of the story. Imagining herself following the North Star home to her grandson, holding it out in front of her as she effectively retraces and reverses the course of her journey South, she lifts her "free hand" (289) and turns North to deliver herself and her grandson.

Works Cited

Andrews, William L., ed. African American Autobiography: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1993.

--. Introduction. Andrews. 1-8.

Ardolino, Frank. "Life Out of Death: Ancient Myth and Ritual in Welty's 'A Worn Path.'" Notes on Mississippi Writers9.1 (1976):1-9.

Bartel, Roland. "Life and Death in Eudora Welty's 'A Worn Path.'" Studies in Short Fiction 14.1 (1977): 288-90.

Bearden, Kenneth. "Monkeying Around: Welty's 'Powerhouse', Blues-Jazz, and the Signifying Connection." Southern Literary Journal 31.2 (1999): 65-79.

Bethea, Dean. "Phoenix Has No Coat: Historicity, Eschatology, and Sins of Omission in Eudora Welty's 'A Worn Path.'" International Fiction Review28 (2001): 32-41.

Brown, William Wells. Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. New York: Dial, 1976.

Butterworth, Nancy. "From Civil War to Civil Rights: Race Relations in Welty's 'A Worn Path.'" Eudora Welty: Eye of the Storyteller. Ed. Dawn Trouard. Kent State UP, 1989. 165-72.

Carby, Hazel V. "'Hear my Voice, Ye Careless Daughters': Narratives of Slave and Free Women Before Emancipation." Andrews 59-76.

Cooley, John. Savages and Naturals: Black Portraits by White Writers in Modern American Literature. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1982.

Daly, Saralyn. "'A Worn Path' Retrod." Studies in Short Fiction 1.1 (1964): 133-39.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by himself. 1845. Ed. John W. Blassingame, John R. McKivigan, Peter P. Hinks, and Gerald Fulkerson. New Haven: Yale UP, 2001.

Ellison, Ralph. "The Essential Ellison." Interview by Ishmael Reed, Quincy Troupe and Steve Canon. 1977. Conversations with Ralph Ellison. Ed. Maryemma Graham and Amritjit Singh. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1995.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "James Gronniosaw and the Trope of the Talking Book." Andrews. 8-25.

-- and Charles T. Davis. "The Language of Slavery." The Slave's Narratives: Texts and Contexts. New York: Oxford UP, 1984. xi-xxxiv.

Hardy, John Edward. "Eudora Welty's Negros." Images of the Negro in American Literature. Ed. Seymour Gross and John Edward Hardy. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1966. 221-32.

Howell, Elmo. "Eudora Welty's Negroes: A Note on 'A Worn Path.'" Xavier University Studies9.1 (1970): 88-132.

Isaacs, Neil. "Life for Phoenix." Sewanee Review 71.1 (1963): 75-81.

Jones, William. "Welty's 'A Worn Path.'" Explicator 15:9 (1957): 57.

Keys, Marilyn. "'A Worn Path': The Way of Dispossession." Studies in Short Fiction 16.4 (1979): 354-56.

Manning, Carol S. "Hurston and Welty, Janie and Liwie." Southern Literary Journal 34.2 (2002): 64-72.

Moss, Grant, Jr. "'A Worn Path' Retold." CLA Journal 15.1 (1971): 144-52.

Nixon, Timothy K. "Same Path, Different Purpose: Chopin's La Folle and Welty's Phoenix Jackson." Women's Studies 32.8 (2003): 937-56.

Olney, James. "'I Was Born': Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature." Gates and Davis. 148-75.

Orr, Elaine. "'Unsettling Every Definition of Otherness': Another Reading of Eudora Welty's 'A Worn Path'." South Atlantic Review 57.2 (1992): 57-72.

Saunders, Robert. "'A Worn Path': The Eternal Quest of Welty's Phoenix Jackson." Southern Literary Journal 25.1 (1992): 62-73.

Welty, Eudora. "A Worn Path." Selected Stories of Eudora Welty. New York: Modern Library, 1954. 275-89.

--. "Is Phoenix Jackson's Grandson Really Dead?" Critical Inquiry 1 (1974): 219-21.

(1) Butterworth's claim that Welty disavows political fiction is misleading. What Welty disavows in articles such as "Must the Novelist Crusade?" is fiction that is didactically political. Written in response to the 1964 murders of civil rights activists Michael Schweruer, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney in rural Mississippi, the essay argues that fiction is always an "interior affair" (153) and thus can only affect political change by reaching readers in those "private neighborhoods" (153) where life is lived. This is exactly the strategy Welty employs in "A Worn Path."

(2) In doing this, I am consciously avoiding the question of how the slave narrative tradition found its way into Welty's story. There is no doubt that she encountered the slave narrative tradition in oral form in the course of her travels through Mississippi on behalf of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. The degree to which "A Worn Path" draws on the tradition for its incidents, imagery, and structure seems to indicate that she was familiar with the tradition in written form as well. The more important question, however, is not how Welty knew the slave narrative tradition. This question is concerned with the past and perhaps cannot be approached without recourse to biographical criticism. More important is the question of how the story is read today, and the related, always relevant question of how the story will be read tomorrow.

(3) Moss couches this observation in a condemnation of those who read racial undertones in Welty's story:

   This does not mean that it is to be overlooked that the red head
   rag and the long clean apron that old Phoenix wore ... can be
   construed and interpreted by those zealous in uncovering illiberal
   attitudes in people, events, literature and the other arts as
   pleasing to the south and of a confirmation of its way of life.

(4) Many of the animals Phoenix enumerates while crossing the thickets also have specific meanings in the slave narrative tradition. The owl, of course, is associated with wisdom. Both the fox and the jack rabbit are trickster figures, as in Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus's Brer Rabbit stories.

(5) Phoenix declares, "Now comes the trial," then starts across the log (277).

(6) Phoenix encounters the child at the border of the fields and encounters the dog at the moment that the wooded track becomes a road.

(7) I am indebted to an anonymous reviewer at Mississippi Quarterly for this observation.

(8) As if to underscore the sense of transition, Welty brackets the paragraph between repetitions of the sentence "She walked on":

   She walked on. The shadows hung from the oak trees to the road like
   curtains. Then she smelled wood-smoke, and smelled the river, and
   she saw a steeple and the cabins on their steep steps. Dozens of
   little black children whirled around her. There ahead was Natchez
   shining. Bells were ringing. She walked on. (284)

(9) Timothy K. Nixon also reads Phoenix's silence as resistance: "Whereas [Phoenix] practices a form of heteroglossia with the hunter, with the nurse and the attendants, she employs silence as a form of resistance" (949).


Saint Cloud State University

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A168131509