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"A Worn Path": A Journey Through the Real and the Not Real

-- Sharon Hardin

 

Because "A Worn Path" begins and ends during the course of Phoenix Jackson's journey, Eudora Welty provides no glimpse inside the old woman's house, nor does she bring Phoenix's little grandson into view. The reader, relying only on assurances of this frail old woman when she tells the nurse her grandson lives, might simply accept him as a presence in the story, waiting just out of sight for the return of his grandmother with the soothing medicine. Yet, if, as Welty indicates in the last three words of the first paragraph, this little old woman, named for a mythical bird, is a "solitary little bird," then it follows that her grandson is dead, and Phoenix is (in a manner of speaking) caught in a cycle of death and resurrection. However, unlike her namesake, the cycle in which this Phoenix finds herself is not that of her own death and resurrection but that of her grandson. Her grandson's need is the reality which precipitates her journey, yet the reality which haunts her steps on that path is the fear, perhaps even the recognition, that her boy is dead. Indeed, Phoenix's "path," is that which runs through her mind in a cycle of the real and the not real. [1]

Throughout her journey, bent on completing her errand of mercy, Phoenix tries to ignore these flashes of fear which persistently invade her mind. In seeming affirmation that the boy lives, Welty, in her essay, "Is Phoenix Jackson's Grandson Really Dead?," asserts that "[t]he story is told through Phoenix's mind. . . . As the author at one with the character as I tell it, I must assume [like Phoenix] that the boy is alive." But she continues tantalizingly, "[a]s the reader, you are free to think as you like. . . . The possibility that [Phoenix] would keep on even if he were dead is there in her devotion and its single-minded, single-track errand" (159-60). Welty demurs when asked directly about the boy's state, always pointing back to the "subject" of the story, which, she stresses, is "the deep-grained habit of love" which compels Phoenix, again and again to make the journey (161).

However, beginning with Phoenix's name and her subtle but direct comparison in the story to a bird, Welty places indicators around her heroine, indicators which parade past the reader much like a pageant, "a pageant of birds." And, similar to Welty's essay of that name, in which humans, in dress and behavior, imitate birds, in this pageant too, under Welty's direction each bird behaves in its own proper fashion, performs its own particular function, "proceed[s] in absolute and easily distinguishable character . . . in a growing circle." But this circle of birds, unlike that made of people dressed in bird costumes entertaining and encircling the congregation of the Farish Street Baptist Church,[2] is directed and placed by Welty around this lone woman as she trudges over the long path. And as each specie presents itself to old Phoenix, some repeatedly, their function, to reassert the reality that her grandson no longer lives, registers in Phoenix's mind, but compelled by desperation and by habit, she nevertheless presses on.

Yet, despite herself, Phoenix calls forth the first bird; however, perhaps in part because her mention of bob-white quails is positioned at the end of a list of animals, they seem unimportant to her, insignificant to the story's narration, seeming to function only as part of the story's backdrop. Although whatever it is that makes the thicket quiver remains unseen, unknown, she recites a list of possibilities, demanding they stay out of her way, but only to the bob-whites does she address the particular injunction, "Keep out from under these feet, little bob-whites." Then she pleads with the fragile little birds, "keep the big wild hogs out of my path. Don't let none of those come running my direction" (142).[3]  With this strange plea to bob-white quails, a dichotomy begins to emerge, a dichotomy between the path taken by Phoenix's feet and that taken by her mind, for Phoenix calls not on her senses but on her feet to guide her on this journey, and the little quails (she names in particular) must stay out from under foot The quails' importance or function in the story is not immediately apparent, but soon after her injunction to the quails (which may or may not be in the bushes), Phoenix notices that, "Down in the hollow was the mourning dove." And upon hearing him, she knows, "It was not too late for him" (143). These passages are frequently seen simply as evidence of the old woman's closeness to nature. Zelma Turner Howard sees Phoenix as an archetypal character who "has reached her full archetypal potential at the beginning of her story. . . . [a] "cosmically connected, sun-blessed [character] . . . . [who] is in direct communication with 'sunward' forces and with all of nature" (71).[4]   However, more than simple awareness of nature is at work here, for the mourning dove holds particular significance for Phoenix. As his name implies, the mourning dove, performing his proper function, fills the woods with his cry of mourning, and it registers in Phoenix's mind that it is "not too late" to mourn, as she begins the ascent out of the hollow.

Immediately afterwards, on the hill the old woman reaches the point of greatest effort and not only of physical effort: "'Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far,' she said in the voice of argument old people keep to use with themselves" (143). Indeed, Phoenix is a woman at war with herself. Two dramas are playing out: one simply about an old woman on an errand of love; the other about an old woman on a fearful, perhaps even futile errand of love. Her command to the bob-whites to "keep out from under [her] feet," indicates this struggle. Her feet have slipped into the groove of habit, and she trusts them to take her where she wants to go -- to retrieve medicine for her sick grandson, yet her senses pull her back. 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'" (143). 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 wants to walk, and when she reaches the top of the hill, resisting death as reality in favor of life, she resolutely "turn[s] and [gives] a full, severe look behind her where she had come" (143). Addressing this sort of war or layering of realities in fiction, Welty asserts that "fiction is a lie. Never in its inside thoughts, always in its outside dress." To make her point, she uses the illustration of a child's nightlight, the kind popular in her childhood, and it bears repeating here: "The outside is painted with a scene, which is one thing; then, when the lamp is lighted, through the porcelain sides a new picture comes out through the old, and they are seen as one." She describes one particular lamp, which "was a view of London till it was lit; but then it was the Great Fire of London. . . . The lamp alight is the combination of internal and external, glowing at the imagination as one; and so is [good fiction]" ("Place in Fiction," 119-20). In "A Worn Path, on the surface a determined, mostly tranquil Phoenix is on a simple errand of love, but behind that, another picture emerges of Phoenix in turmoil, dogged by fear that she is on a futile errand.

Welty tells of a lesson she learned as a child, a lesson involving a parade, which, of course, initially appeared as a pleasant event, but whose meaning and purpose were far from pleasant, a parade which she came to see in much the same light as the procession in "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," a procession of happy, smiling, unsuspecting children. Welty relates that a circus parade in her home town of Jackson Mississippi was re-routed past the home of a little boy too sick to leave his room, and who soon afterwards died. From that time forward she saw parades as holding ominous meaning. She remarks that the boy "had been tricked, not celebrated, by the parade's brazen marching up his street. . . . It is not for nothing that an ominous feeling often attaches itself to a procession. This is when I learned it." Indeed, the parade made such a lasting impression that she asserts, "In almost every story I ever wrote, some parade or procession, impromptu or ceremonious, comic or mocking or funereal, [marks] some stage of the story's unfolding" (One Writer's Beginnings, 37). So too in "A Worn Path," Welty inserts a parade, a parade of "ominous" meaning, in which the dichotomy, the struggle between Phoenix's feet and her senses comes to the fore. Rather like the red shoes which forced a young girl to dance unceasingly in Hans Christian Andersen's "The Red Shoes," Phoenix's feet both direct and carry her on this parade route: "Putting her right foot out, she mounted the log and shut her eyes. . . . Like a festival figure in some parade, she began to march across" (143). Seen in one light, an old woman, for the sake of love, ignores her own safety and marches across a log; seen in a harsher light, an old woman, ignoring her own safety, marches across a log, because she cannot refuse.

That the parade in which Welty places Phoenix also holds some dark portent, some ominous meaning becomes apparent soon after her "march" across the log, when Phoenix, sitting down to rest, "not dar[ing] to close her eyes," has a waking dream or vision, reminiscent, perhaps, of the fatally ill boy with whom Welty connects all parades. Phoenix sees a little boy holding out a slice of marble cake, but when she reaches out, saying, "That would be acceptable," the boy, cake and all disappears (143). This passage is sometimes discussed in reference to the cake offered by the boy. Some current critics, such as Dennis Sykes and Nancy K. Butterworth, interpret the marble cake (and indeed the entire story) as invested with racial implications.[5]  However, perhaps the more likely object for which the old grandmother reaches is the total vision, the boy, perhaps the grandson, seemingly well and whole, but nevertheless an apparition, holding out a slice of cake. At the disappearance of the vision, Phoenix resumes her journey, and almost immediately yet another intrusion occurs, another reminder of death, this time in the form of a buzzard, a carrion eater, flying overhead, and she demands, "Who you watching" (144)? Thoughts of death, never far from this old woman's consciousness, resurface when she sees a scarecrow. Apparitions definitely on her mind, she demands of the scarecrow, "Who you be the ghost of?" Then, in quick denial, she declares, "I have heard of nary death close by." Upon discovering it is not an apparition, she laughs, "My senses is gone." Much preferring to trust her feet, which carry her toward help and life, than her senses, which bring her sounds and sightings of birds and visions of little boys, all of which speak of death, she starts to dance, and again resumes her place in the "parade." Rather like a parade leader, "with mouth drawn down, [she] shook her head once or twice in a little strutting way. Some husks blew down and whirled in streamers about [this mummer's] skirts" (144). But not allowed for long to shake the thought which plagues her mind, yet again she is confronted with quail, which "[seem] all dainty and unseen" (italics mine). Thoughts again heavy, she walks on past abandoned cabins, silvered with age. They seem to her "like old women under a spell sitting there," and she says out loud, "'I walking in their sleep'" (144), admitting for a time that the "reality" in which she chooses to walk is only a dream. Yet, this somnambulist keeps her place in the parade; she holds to her path.

Absorbed in meditation she fails to hear the approach of the hunter's dog, and the next thing she knows, lying on her back in the ditch, she again is visited by the dream, the apparition, but as before, when she reaches for it, it disappears. And once more, after the dream, a bird appears with yet another reminder of death. Protruding from the hunting bag of the dog's owner "there hung down a little closed claw. It was one of the bob-whites, with its beak hooked bitterly to show it was dead" (145). She would never again have to command this little bird not to get under foot. But she must ignore it; she must press on, but before she can take a step, this old woman who prefers to trust her feet, rather than her eyes to cross a log, because her senses are gone, sees a nickel fall to the ground, and as at the cabins, Phoenix functions in a sort of sleep-state. "Further and further forward [she bends], the lid stretched down over her eyes, as if she were doing this in her sleep . . . with the grace and care [her fingers] would have in lifting an egg from under a setting hen," she scoops up the money. However, no sooner does she straighten up, the nickel safely in her pocket, when a bird flies past. Her reaction is both strange and immediate. The bird reminds her of God, and it frightens her: "Her lips moved. 'God watching me the whole time. I come to stealing'" (146). But too near the end of the path to turn back now, she seems to put the thought from her mind and continues toward Natchez.

At the head of the parade, she approaches the city; behind her a gun fires repeatedly, and at her entry, the bells of Natchez ring. Surrounded by "dozens of little black children whirl[ing] around her," she is greeted by red and green Christmas lights, turned on in the daytime -- as if in her honor. Then, this woman who only a few minutes earlier saw a nickel fall to the ground, and who, over the tree-tops, saw houses and church steeples, again denies the trustworthiness of her eyesight and has to "[depend] on her feet to know where to take her," and, indeed, her feet take her "around and around until [they know] to stop" (146-47). The parade reaches the halfway point of the cycle when she reaches the doctor's office.

As though expected, she announces, "Here I be." Then her eyes catch sight of "the gold frame that matched the dream that was hung up in her head," but resisting the pull of that dream, she stands at parade attention, "a fixed and ceremonial stiffness over her body" (147). Her face, covered with sweat, begins to twitch, as the real and the not real struggle for mastery. Unable to speak, she is transfixed by the gold frame which reminds her of her dream of a well and whole little boy, perhaps the only way he can be whole -- as a ghost. That she resists the dream is obvious, in that she resolutely shakes off the dream. Then "the flame of comprehension" crosses her face, and "like an old woman begging a dignified forgiveness for waking up frightened in the night," she declares, "My little grandson, he is just the same, and I forgot in the coming" (148). Welty asserts that this is Phoenix's "victory," this shaking off of the dream. To Welty, the writer, the telling of a story is what writing is all about, not the moral, not any cause or purpose, but the path, if you will, and so it is, she insists, with Phoenix ("Is Phoenix Jackson's Grandson Really Dead?," 162). No matter the obstacles, Phoenix accomplishes her mission.

But not until here at the doctor's office does Phoenix reveal a picture, her visual image, of her grandson. She tells the nurse, "My little grandson, he sit up there in the house all wrapped up, waiting . . . . He wear a little patch quilt and peep out holding his mouth open like a little bird" (italics mine), and like a mother bird, she swears, "I could tell him from all others in creation" (148). Yet, he may not be there; as the mourning dove shows with his song, as the buzzard shows in his flight, as the bob-white shows so deliberately and so "bitterly" by his own death, her little "bird" may be dead. This woman knows or at least fears; the birds, one after another, remind her. But it is the little bob-white quail with which she identifies her little grandson. Did she, at some point, see her little "bird" announce his own death? But to admit to his death is to acknowledge her own end, for, as she tells the nurse, "We is the only two left in the world" (148). How can this woman not keep walking in her sleep? For Phoenix, better to live with the uncertainty of life than the certainty of death.

Therefore, she consciously chooses to let her feet, rather than her senses direct her; she announces, "I'll march myself back where he waiting." Medicine in hand, free hand raised in salute, she nods to onlookers, and in the midst of all that parade imagery Phoenix marches from sight, an important image to remember. According to Welty's model, the parade is the deceiver, onlookers the deceived. As onlookers readers are deceived, first that Phoenix's journey is a simple journey, taxing only her body. Then at the doctor's office Phoenix deceives onlookers about her certainty that the little boy lives. Welty relates that as a child she wanted to know where babies originated. Her mother could not bring herself to tell the secret. Then, quite by accident Welty discovered that her parents had kept secret from her the fact that she had an older brother who died before she was born. Welty remarks how much worse was the second secret. She observes, "One secret is liable to be revealed in the place of another that is harder to tell, and the substitute secret when nakedly exposed is often more appalling" (One Writer's, 16-17). In "A Worn Path;" the reader does not discover until Phoenix reaches the doctor's office the urgent nature of her mission. But even after discovery of her journey's purpose, only when the reader retraces events of Phoenix's journey, peering into the old woman's mind, does a light switch on, and a darker secret reveals itself. Her journey had been filled with terrors that her grandson is or might already be dead, moreover, if dead, Phoenix is the last of her line.

Welty asserts that the boy's "being dead can't increase the truth of the story, can't affect it one way or another." The truth of the story is the love which motivates Phoenix to take the path. Phoenix's journey, with all its uncertainties, is Welty's focus, her story ("Is Phoenix," 16). Granville Hicks, who sees "A Worn Path" as a work consisting of "nothing but details," nevertheless observes that it strikes "a perfect balance between the objective and the subjective" (262). Yet, only by following the "Path" of the story's title, tracing uncertainty and fear which run through Phoenix's mind, can a reader understand the magnitude of the old woman's task.[6]  Robert Penn Warren, discussing Welty's method of layering in her stories, remarks on her use of "tissue[s] of symbols which emerge from, and disappear into, a world of scene and action." Warren holds that "when we get the sense of one picture superimposed upon another, different and yet somehow the same, [her] stories are most successful" (50). Phoenix accomplishes her mission and so does Welty. The end of the story finds the onlooker, like Phoenix, unable to distinguish the real from the unreal, the true from the not-true. Welty ends her story where she begins it -- outside the cabin, and Welty's readers, like Phoenix, are left with a dilemma, "The boy is dead. The boy is not dead. The boy is dead. The boy is not dead."

Sharon Hardin
Eastern Illinois University


Notes

[1]  Zelma Turner Howard comments that in "Welty's depiction of characters . . . her use of unreality as true reality," one can "sense strains of Kafka's technique" 6.  (back)

[2]  Welty, "A Pageant of Birds."  (back)

[3]  This and all quotes from "A Worn Path" are taken from The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. (back)

[4]  Suzanne Marrs, "Eudora Welty’s Photography: Images into Fiction." Critical Essays on Eudora Welty. Ed. W Craig Turner and Lee Emling Harding Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1989. 290-296. About this passage, Marrs states, "[Phoenix] is not removed from nature but lives naturally. She tells time by turning to nature" 288.  (back)

[5]  Dennis Sykes, "Welty's'The Worn Path,'" The Explicator 53 (1998) [journal on-line] accessed 22 February 1999; available from http//web2,searchbank.com/infotrac. Sykes sees Phoenix as representing her race, and "The Worn Path" as "demonstrating a theme of impending black equality." But, when the marble cake ("a reference to the idea of integration") disappears, this shows that Phoenix's dream is "unattainable" (1); Nancy Butterworth "From Civil War to Civil Rights" in Eudora Welty, ed. Dawn Truard (Kent, Ohio: The Kent State UP, 1989) 165-72.  (back)

[6]  In Warren's article, "The Love and Separateness in Miss Welty," a critique of Welty's collection, A Wide Net, he discusses her collection, A Curtain of Green, to which "A Worn Path" belongs.  (back)

 

Works Cited

Hicks, Granville. "Eudora Welty." Critical Essays on Eudora Welty. Ed. W. Craig Turner and Lee Emling Harding. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1989. 259-67.

Howard, Zelma Turner. The Rhetoric of Eudora Welty's Short Stories. Jackson, Miss.: University and College Press of Mississippi, 1973.

Warren, Robert Penn. "The Love and the Separateness in Miss Welty." Critical Essays on Miss Welty. Ed W. Craig Turner and Lee Emling Harding. Boston: G.K. Harr & Co. 1989. 42- 51.

Welty, Eudora. One Writer's Beginnings Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U. P., 1984.

- - -. "A Pageant of Birds." The Eye of the Story: Select Essays and Reviews. New York: Random, 1978, 315-20.

- - -. "Is Phoenix Jackson's Grandson Really Dead?" The Eye of the Story. 159-60.

- - -. "Place in Fiction," The Eye of the Story. 116-33.

- - -. "A Worn Path." The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980. 142-49.