Exploring Grief and Charity through Symbolism
The short story “A Worn Path” by Eudora Welty follows an old woman traveling a ways into town at Christmas time to get her grandson some medicine. This path, worn by now, symbolizes Phoenix Jackson’s psychological journey through grief and charitable renewal. The consistent and creative usage of symbolism throughout “A Worn Path” is used to share Phoenix Jackson’s journey, exploring the values and misfortunes of the character herself. For instance, as “Mistletoe in Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path” argues; that “mistletoe, cited as an emblem of “Affection and Love,” is said to convey the message, “I shall surmount all difficulties” Thus, the image of mistletoe in “A Worn Path” allusively complements Welty’s characterization of Phoenix Jackson” as demonstrated through Phoenix Jackson’s self sacrifice and what she endures in order to make the trip for her grandson.
“Literary Contexts in Short Stories: Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path” points out, even the character’s name “Phoenix Jackson”, is symbolic too in that it “evokes images of the mythical bird which rises from the flames and regenerates.” I think this symbolism means; since she makes the trip regularly, she must endure the pain and suffering of the trip to then be rejuvenated. The reason why Phoenix Jackson needs this rejuvination is arguable, but one argument I find the most compelling is from “Life and Death in Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path” in which it is suggested that Phoenix Jackson’s grandson is dead, and she is making this trip to retrieve medication and to give him a gift as a coping mechanism. Similarly, when she can’t explain to the nurses why she’s come, “She displays a ceremonial stiffness as she sits “bolt upright” string “straight ahead, her face solemn and withdrawn into rigidity.” This passiveness suggests her psychological dilemmashe cannot explain why she made the journey. Her attempt to blame her lapse of memory on her illiteracy is unconvincing.” This demonstrates her trouble explaining her underlying motivations of making her journey, which due to her behavior becomes more complicated than to just assume getting medicine for her grandson is her only motive. When the nurses ask Phoenix Jackson if her grandson is dead, she suddenly remembers why she made her trip and tries a lot to convince the nurses that he is alive, by overcompensation. The themes of charity runs deep in this story; for instance when Phoenix Jackson meets the young white hunter while she’s walking into town, he offers her money if he had any, which at that time he had dropped a nickel on the ground. As the man is distracted with the fighting of dogs, Phoenix picks up the nickel and keeps it without telling the man, but with a sign of remorse, “God watching me the whole time. I come to stealing.” (1009). This demonstrates Phoenix’s true desperation and her reliance on charity and being an opportunist. When she arrives to town, she also isn’t afraid to ask for help, “Please, missy, will you lace up my shoe?” “Thank you, missy. I doesn’t mind asking a nice lady to tie up my show, when I gets out on the street.” (1010). When Phoenix arrives to the “big building” an attendant at the desk commented about her by saying “A charity case, I suppose”. So it seems pretty apparent that Pheonix was a person in need. The nurse also makes it clear that the medication she’s picking up for her grandson is free and for “charity”, and the attendant gives her a nickel since Phoenix was in need around Christmas time. In this sense, if we assume that the grandson is dead, we see that Phoenix accepts or even asks for charity sometimes with her grandson in mind, but in reality, she is the one in need. As “Life and Death In Eudora Welty’s ‘A Worn Path” points out, “Literally she seeks the city to give life to her grandson, but symbolically she needs the city to support her own life.”
Phoenix Jackson’s desperation for companionship is demonstrated by the way she talks to plants and animals on her journey into town, and also through the vision of the boy handing her some marble cake. She remains talkative to herself for example she exclaims, “Out of my way, all you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons and wild animals!” (1006). She also shows how talking helps her cope with having a vision impairment when she sees a figure in the corn fields, “She shut her eyes, reached out her hand, and touched a sleeve. She found a coat and inside that an emptiness, cold as ice. “You scarecrow,” she said.”(1008). It’s clear she uses this to cope with not being able to see very well, but as “Life and Death In Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path” describes, “ Her desperate need for companionship is demonstrated not only by this vision but also by her practice of talking to animals and objects, most of which she imagines rather than sees.” In that sense, her vision of the boy, which could be her imagining her own grandson is a “loaded gun” in a sense that once the reader arrives to the ending of the story, they can refer back to that moment and infer that it’s more in Phoenix Jackson’s imagination that it is an actual interaction with a boy.
This criticism also points out other uses symbolism throughout the short story that infers to the death of Phoenix Jackson, “If the white hunter was right in saying that she hardly had enough time to return home if she started back immediately, she certainly will not make it back, literally or symbolically.” Also, in the first paragraph of “A Worn Path”, when Eudora Welty is introducing the character she states “Her name was Phoenix Jackson.” (1006). in the past tense, which could infer that she has only left her name behind and is no longer living. This symbolism is important here, she is deteriorating with age and memory as we’re following Phoenix on her path. She is performing a coping ritual through suffering from the loss of her grandson and yet she is enduring the hardship of performing that ritual in spite of her age and disability. Her descent down the stairs at the end of “A Worn Path” I believe demonstrates that this is her last time performing this coping ritual, even her memory of why she is doing it has faded once she arrives, and she arrives not by her sight, but by letting her feet guide her. “A Worn Path” explores grief and how we deal with loss, along with need and accepting charity by the way we depend on the world around us as well as how these needs are meet by persevering endurance, as demonstrated by Phoenix Jackson’s path. This short story uses many different forms of symbolism throughout, allowing the reader to explore dual meanings and make additional assumptions about Phoenix Jacksons situation using a simplistic writing method.
Piwinski, David.Mistletoe in Eudoro Welty’s A Worn Path
Bartel, Roland.Life and Death in Eudora Welty’s A Worn Path
Lister, Rachel. Literary Contexts in Short Stories: Eudora Welty’s A Worn Path
Schlib, John. Clifford, John. Arguing About Literature