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A Worn Path is short story written by Eudola Welty. The story depicts racial inequalities in pre-civil right movement America. The main protagonist in the story is an old, poor African American woman named Phoenix Jackson. She has to overcome insurmountable challenges to save the life of his grandson who is terminally ill. Phoenix is constantly in a long trek to town to fetch medicine for her grandson who had swallowed lyre, causing a recurrent swelling of the throat. Thus, Phoenix finds herself not making once, but occasional journeys to town for the boy.
The recurrent treks to town, together with the loneliness of the journey, reflects a part of society which has been neglected. A section of the society, which has to walk the long road of survival alone without a hand from the rest. Although not directly implied, Welty symbolically illustrates the hardship African American face in the days preceding civil movement in the 1960s (Schmidt 1991). The perseverance and love for her grandson mirrors what the African American can conquer before they gain equalities.
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Phoenix has to meet new challenge along the way with new challenges in waiting at every turn of the road. Every new challenge reflects a real problem the African American have to face in the society. As she is heading to town to fetch medicine for her grandson, she gets her skirt tangled up by. Knock in to a ditch by a loose dog. Face a white hunter who threatens her with a gun. By telling these entire handles along the way, Welty intends to shows how many handles the road to freedom must bear (Schmidt). She also portrays that none of these handles are too great to overcome. If a feeble poor Black woman can face all these on her own, then better that any African American can overcome all the prejudices and oppressions. The hostility Phoenix face along her journey and in her destination does not make life any better. The white hunter could not help her because of her color. The clinic attendants she encounters in the clinic address her rather without apathy of her plight. By calling her to “Speak up, Grandma…Are you deaf?” (Welty 97), the attendant is unconcerned that she is tired and weak, having walked for a long distance.
Phoenix is all alone in her journey to Natchez, the town where she is to fetch drugs for her grandson. Ordinarily, an old woman her age should have been accompanied by someone else or better still, have someone fetch the medicines on her behalf. Despite, her age and weakly body, she takes it upon herself to do the journey alone. This demonstrates a strong sense of devotion and love for hid grandson. It is Welty deliberate choice of a grandson at the receiving end of a grandma service and devotion to demonstrate just how the older African American should sacrifice for the sake of the younger generation (Robert Penn 1944). Nevertheless, Phoenix appreciates the road to racial equality is a long and hard journey to walk. "Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far... Something always take a hold of me on this hill? Pleads I should stay" (94). She faces to two extreme realities; either to let her grandson die or walk the long road to town to save his life. A strong sense of devotion and concern about his plight overrides her discouragement to make the trek to town.
Phoenix obsession with keeping her grandson alive and her loneliness in her journey makes her hallucinate about ghosts. Her vision of images of ghost is probably as a result of her anxiety of the future which seems so uncertain for her and her grandson. But to offer herself comfort, she will ‘talk’ to the ghost and inquire “who be you the ghost for?” (95) This demonstrates her determination to face any kind of challenges. She is a classic example of a discriminated people who become socially conditioned to pain and suffering (Schmidt 1991).
The setting of the story is also telling about the racial condition in America at the time. Being black and living in the Mississippi region at the time was treacherous. This in itself accorded her little respect from the community she lived in where she could be treated like an animal. But despite this condition, she exhibit a self respect character in her several encounter with white folks despite her color and more so important, her sex. An instance where the white hunter points a gun at her and her reaction portrays a self confident and fearless woman. She stands firms and looks him straight on. The white man is amused by her lack of fear and exclaim ‘Well, Granny, you must be a hundred years old and scared of nothing' (460). She had own his respect by showing no fear for him. In another instance, where she stops an elegant lady to tie her shoe, shows a confident and self respecting old woman. By picking this woman of class to do her shoe laces, she exhibits lack of fear or intimidation of social class. Both of these instances start with harsh tones on the part of her encounters. Later, they would admire her character and become nice to her. (Eunice 1952).
By choice of the character name Phoenix, Weity depicts her to the giant-size bird. Ironically, she portrays her as small, frail and old woman. But metaphorically, it’s the size of her determination and perseverance that is captured in the name. Due to her age, Phoenix is portrayed as being of poor eye sight - "Old eyes thought you were a pretty little green bush" (457). But when she encounter the hunter, she sees "...with her own eyes a flashing nickel fall out of the man's pocket onto the ground" (459). This is despite of her weak eye sight. It depicts a woman who is keen and sharp eyed Phoenix bird to identify what is important to her. She would later pick the nickel from the ground and move on (Eunice 1952).
At the clinic, a clear demonstration of belittlement for her because of her age, color and sex is apparent. Phoenix enters in memory lapses and at some point she seems lost in her own world as the nurse addresses her. The nurse “You must not take our time this way” respond, shown the general picture of the status of an old black woman place in the society. The nurse seems to be impatience with her and would mind to finish off with her fast to attend to other ‘important’ duties. To the nurse, the old age of the woman is not an excuse for her to forget or lose concentration. That Phoenix is equivalent of respect to other member of the society (Robert Penn 1944).
Though, Phoenix lives in a society which does not accord her a lot respect, she has countered this deprivation by her self dignity and respect. But her pride does not overshadow her humility. Although her clothes are not elegant, they are “…all neat and tidy…” (456). When she approach the elegant lady whom she requested to do her shoe laces, she request, "Please, missy, will you lace up my shoe? ... Do all right for out in the country, but wouldn't look right to go in a big building" (460). This shows a sense of humility despite of her need for respect and reorganization like other members of the society (Nancy).
The story setting during the time of Christmas highlights the spirit of service and self
sacrifice to others. This is captured when the nurse assert that “She doesn’t come for herself” (486). This captures Phoenix mission of service and love for his grand son. On the other hand, the spirit of giving can be seen in the service of others like the lady who ties her shoes. Welty capture this Christmas spirit by this statement about Phoenix.
She entered and saw nailed up document on the wall the that had been stamped with a seal made of gold and also framed in the gold which matched the dream hung up in her head,
"Here I be," she said. There was a ceremonial stiffness that had been fixed over her body. "A charity case, I suppose," said an attendant.
Also, the attendant offer to give Phoenix ‘a few pennies out of my purse?’. The attendant hands her a nickel. She demonstrates appreciation by standing when receiving the coin which she adds up with the other one she had in her purse (489).
The story of Phoenix Jackson captures the historical setting of pre- civil right movement in America. Much as many have described it as a ‘simple’ novel, it represents in a wider screen the societal inequalities which were prevailing by that time. Any keen reader of this literature will not fail to relate the social realities which it was originally set to depict. Thus, the book captures the historical events for generations after to familiarize with such happenings. The spirit of devotion for the course of others is also represented in the book. Despite innumerable challenges, the African American of the time is portrayed as selfish and willing to undergo suffering for the sake of their less fortunate members. This is despite their individual challenges, in this case depicted in the form of an old frail woman. Future generation could draw some lessons from this spirit of selfishness, dedication to others and charity. Also the spirit of perseverance is portrayed where by, despite insurmountable odds, the spirit of tolerance and resilience is evident in the character of Phoenix. The passion for giving a new lease of life for her grandson, make Phoenix make regular treks from her village to Natchez. Hers is a journey of determination and person to save the life of her grandson.
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