In her short story
"A Worn Path," Eudora Welty
offers a hopeful portrait of the continuation of life in the face of adversity and old age. In the close-to-life world of Welty’s microcosmic Natchez, Mississippi
, one can see the universal message of rebirth and striving optimism
. She asserts that, in spite of bearing seemingly endless hardships and Sisyphean
struggles, one can remain alive, and even live happily.
The narrator’s description of her protagonist is the strongest indication of the theme of perseverance in the story. In the first place, the character’s name, Phoenix Jackson, is an allusion to the Egyptian and Greek myth of the Phoenix, a bird who consumes itself in radiant flames every 500 years only to start life afresh and repeat the cycle ad infinitum. The narrator implies that this Phoenix is ancient as well, as the character says of herself, "there is no telling" what her precise age is. Also, Welty provides the background of a harsh, cold December day. In stark contrast to the dying landscape and ominous animals (a buzzard and a black dog) is Phoenix, donning a lively red rag and rapping her cane "like the chirping of a solitary bird." Phoenix is a "pendulum," indicating that she will continue to move and live for eternity, as if by some ineluctable physical law. Phoenix, a seemingly decrepit, aged woman has a "golden color" underneath her wrinkled skin and "illuminated" cheeks; she is even described as a baby, another indication that this Phoenix is full of life.
Phoenix also acts lively and fresh. Despite her meek appearance, she is persistent and remarkably hopeful. For instance, rather than cower from a somber scarecrow, she optimistically assumes it is a lush bush. She is also strong, impervious, and dignified, evidenced by her interactions with humans. When she meets the hunter, a killer of birds, and, symbolically, the oppressor of Phoenix’s people, she gains his respect by showing her fearlessness. While he mocks her at first, he is amazed that she has walked a distance that even he is incapable of going. Another townsperson even debases herself to tie Phoenix’s shoe, showing the latter’s austere, dignified demeanor. Phoenix’s striving in the face of adversity wins her respect and fortune (albeit only 10 cents), rather than abasement and defeat, conveying the message that striving is ultimately beneficial.
The plot itself sheds light on the theme of Welty’s short story. Past massive, dark trees and dead corn, Phoenix perseveres and reaches the brightly lit town during Christmas time, symbolizing the new life she has reached after facing grueling obstacles. The reader discovers the reason for her travels: she has come for medicine for her chronically ill grandson. When Phoenix lapses into one of her hopeful dreams, she says her grandson will "hold his mouth open like a little bird," meaning that she will teach him to be a strong "Phoenix," so that he can strive as she has. With the 10 cents she has earned from her persistent struggling, she proposes to buy him a miniature toy windmill, an object that will certainly give the child hope of a better life. For, despite the trials that he must inevitably face as both infirm and as a black person in Post-Civil War Mississippi, he can follow Phoenix’s example of braving the perils of a harsh world.
As Phoenix Jackson passes on her legacy of rebirth to her grandson, Welty provides us with this story as an offering of hope. Whether black or not, most of Welty’s readers will not have to experience such hardships as Phoenix. Therefore, no one has any excuse for not showing the bravado, the dignity, and the hopeful disposition of Phoenix Jackson.