Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path” is a story that emphasizes the natural symbolism of the surroundings. The main character in the story, Phoenix Jackson, is an old black woman who seeks out to find medicine for her sick nephew. This story contains a motif, which is the continuous walking of Phoenix Jackson throughout her journey. She lives in the pinewoods and faces the challenging experience of walking through the snowy, frozen earth to get to the hospital in the city of Natchez. Phoenix Jackson is a very caring person, and is in love with life. Although she is very old, it seems that she has many years ahead of her. Eudora Welty brings realism into the story describing the realities of being old.
It is Christmas, and Phoenix Jackson has to head out to the city to obtain the medicine for her nephew. A long time ago, her nephew swallowed lye that burned his throat, and the medicine is the only thing that relieves his pain. The woods are filled with pine trees that cast dark shadows throughout the terrain. The darkness that surrounds Phoenix is the total opposite of her. She is a poor woman, but is very neat and tidy. She appreciates her the small things in life and respects what she has. Although she is old, she has extremely dark hair, wears a red bandana, and has much “life” within her:
Her skin had a pattern all its own of numberless branching wrinkles and as though a whole little tree stood in the middle of her forehead, but a golden color ran underneath, and the two knobs of her cheeks were illumined by a yellow burning under the bark. (87)
It is almost as if she is a part of nature herself, when Eudora Welty describes her as having a tree within her forehead. She is a very lively person, and is willing to go through this obstacle course of vicissitudes of the cold earth: “Under the red rag her hair came down on her neck in the frailest of ringlets, still black, and with an odor like copper” (87). The copper smell of her hair brings more realism of old age. When she stops to sit down under a tree, she dazes off and thinks that a little boy is giving her a piece of marble cake. She then snaps out of her trance and sees only her hand waiving in the air. This shows that very old people hallucinate sometimes, which is completely natural. The name “Phoenix”, is the name of an ancient Egyptian bird that regenerates itself after 500 years and lives on for another 500 years. This old woman represents the phoenix, which lives on in her old age.
Phoenix Jackson demonstrates her love of life as she talks to all of the animals within the forest: “Out of my way, all you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons and wild animal! Keep out from under these feet, little bob-whites. Keep the big wild hogs out of my path. Don’t let none of those come running my direction. I got a long way” (87). She realizes she has a long journey ahead of her, but will do whatever it takes to help her nephew. Phoenix Jackson seems to be one with nature and brings peace and harmony to everything living in the forest. However, the forest has the aura of death. For instance, Phoenix spots a buzzard sitting upon an old, dead tree that resembled a black man. The buzzard represents death, but the old women made her way through the furrow and left “death”. She then comes upon a field of dead corn, which stood a scarecrow. The job of the scarecrow is to scare away the black crows, which also symbolize death. Phoenix Jackson dances with the scarecrow, as if they are celebrating the departure of death. She then came upon a spring, and starts to drink from the well. The water in the spring represents longevity, and Phoenix drank it as a sign of her long life. Suddenly, a black dog crept out of a ditch and approached Phoenix with its drooling tongue. Phoenix hit the dog lightly with a stick and it fled. She walked into the ditch where her senses drifted away: “A dream visited her, and she reached her hand up, but nothing reached down and gave her a pull” (89). The dream could have been God looking down at her, but she is not ready to enter heaven, which is why nothing reached down to get her. Phoenix still has many years to live and must complete her journey.
Just before the city, Phoenix stumbles upon a white hunter, accompanied by two growling dogs. After a brief conversation with the man, she quickly noticed a nickel that fell out of the man’s pocket: “Then she slowly straightened up, she stood erect, and the nickel was in her apron pocket” (90). Phoenix is not the type of lady to steal things, but she wants to purchase a gift for her nephew for Christmas. She feels somewhat guilty and speaks to herself: “God watching me the whole time. I come to stealing” (90). Before the hunter’s departure, he lied and told Phoenix that he would give her a dime if he had any money. Phoenix finally reaches Natchez, which is decorated with luminous red and green lights. The city is full of paved roads, which is the opposite of the snowy, rough landscape of the pinewoods. The city’s atmosphere is bright and merry, and symbolizes the celebration of Phoenix’s journey. Phoenix reaches the hospital and quickly forgets why she had come. Phoenix remembers when the nurse asks how her nephew is doing. This is another example of realism of old age affecting Phoenix Jackson’s memory. The nurse and the doctor agree to give the medicine to Phoenix at no charge. In addition, the nurse gives Phoenix a nickel for Christmas spirit. Phoenix is going to use her ten cents to buy her nephew a paper windmill. The windmill represents the circle of life, and Phoenix will live on for many more years. “A Worn Path” ends with her slow step down the hospital stairs.
“A Worn Path” emphasizes natural symbolism, and Phoenix Jackson seems to be part of the nature that surrounds her. Phoenix Jackson is full of life, and respects all of the wildlife in the forest. Although Phoenix is poor, she is neat and tidy and appreciates her life. She loves her nephew, and is willing to travel through the rugged pinewoods to get the medicine that cures his illness. All of the things included in the forest represent natural symbolism that is directly related to the realism of Phoenix Jackson. The windmill is a perfect representation of the circle of life, and Phoenix has many more years to live. When Phoenix dies, her spirit of the Phoenix bird will live on in her nephew who most likely will live a long, happy life.
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