“Phoenix Jackson: Mind Over Matter”
by Mary Anderson [email protected]
Novelist Eudora Welty is often studied and adored by many readers; her much
deserved recognition comes from her brilliant, deeply compassionate, and lively stories
and novels (Ford 36). Like many of her stories, Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path” is set in
Mississippi. In “A Worn Path,” Welty focuses on an old woman’s journey to Natchez and
on the many obstacles that she encounters along the way. Phoenix is going to town to get
medication for her beloved grandson.
But he trip is difficult because nature and her
handicaps are making it hard for her to reach her destination. Nevertheless, the old
woman boldly continues along the equally old path, struggling every step of the way.
Even though Phoenix faces a number of obstacles, she reaches her destination and
triumphs over her physical handicaps and over nature’s barriers by relying on her inner
Although Phoenix is nearly blind, she does not let her failing eyesight keep her
from reaching her destination; she relies on her feet to take her where she needs to go.
“Old Phoenix would have been lost had she not distrusted her eyesight and depended on
her feet to know where to take her (162).” The ragged old woman inches her feet forward
with the aid of a makeshift cane, dragging her untied shoelaces along the icy road.
Phoenix’s feet carry her to the top of the hill and then carefully guide her down the hill.
But her eyes fail her as she nears the bottom of the hill and her dress gets snagged in a
thorn bush. “Old eyes thought you was a pretty little green bush (159).” She carefully
frees herself and continues along the path.
When Phoenix nears a fallen tree that lays over the creek, she closes her eyes and
lets her feet guide her across it. Her feet take her across the fields and lead her out of the
swamp and through the maze. As she makes her way through the corn field, she stumbles
across a tall, dark figure. “Ghost,” she said sharply, “who be you the ghost of? For I have
heard of nary death close by (160).” Her eyesight tricks her into believing that it is a
ghost, or perhaps, the Grim Reaper that has come to take her away. When Phoenix gets
no response from the “ghost,” she bravely touches the figure and realizes that it is only a
The relieved woman kicks up her dependable feet and dances with him.
Phoenix acknowledges that it is nature’s job to stall her. However, she makes it
clear that she has no time for the barriers that are being thrown across her path. She
knows that her life is limited and she has no time for obstructions. When she finds herself
snagged on a thorn bush, she talks to it as she patiently frees herself. “Thorns, you doing
your appointed work Never want to let folks pass-no sir (159).” As Phoenix wobbles
along, she comes across a sitting buzzard and in three simple words she lets him know that
he will not dine upon her. “Who you watching (160)?” She slowly sways past him and
continues her journey, while nature carefully plans the next obstacle. Sure enough, as
Phoenix stands and ponders, a big black dog creeps up behind her. “Old woman,” she said
to herself, “that black dog come up out of the weeds to stall you off (161).” She accepts
the fact that the black dog is merely following nature’s orders.
Phoenix’s old body is not as quick as her wit. When Phoenix is startled by the
huge mutt, her mind reacts much faster than her body, causing her to drop into a
weed-cushioned trench. The old woman is discovered by a young hunter who quickly
snatches her out of the ditch. As they converse, Phoenix catches a glimpse of a shiny
nickel that drops out of the hunter’s pouch. Her mind reacts; her face lights up and she
claps her hands. “Look at that dog! She laughed as if in admiration. He ain’t scared of
nobody. He a big black dog (161).”
Knowing that her old body needs plenty of time to
grab the nickel, she uses her wit to shift the hunter’s attention toward the “fearless” dog.
As the hunter sets off to prove his own fearlessness, Phoenix goes for the coin.
“She was slowly bending forward by that time (162).” She gradually bows and places the
coin in her apron. As Jackson slowly lifts her body, she notices a bird flying above her.
“Her lips moved. God watching me the whole time. I come to stealing (162).” She
realizes that God is watching her sin. The culpable woman boldly faces the man, ready to
admit her guilt. After a few moments, Phoenix concludes that the hunter is clueless of her
thievery so the witty woman subtly confesses to the man: “I seen plenty go off closer by,
in my day, and for less than what I done,” (162).” Phoenix hobbles along, happy about the
shiny nickel in her pocket, yet unsure of why she needs or wants it.
Although Phoenix’s deteriorating memory keeps her from knowing why she is
making the journey, her determination surpasses her uncertainty. The strong-willed
woman has overcome every obstacle that nature has put across her path. “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 (159).” She bravely warns the
animals to keep out of her way.
When the hunter tells her to go home, she firmly states
that she is going to town, not home. “I bound to go to town, mister,” said Phoenix. “The
time come around (161).” The hunter mistakenly concludes that the old woman is going
to town to see Santa. Phoenix does not know why she is going to town either, but that
does not keep her from getting there. Even though the trail is treacherous for someone
her age, she is determined to get where she has to go.
Phoenix’s purpose is to get medication for her grandson who swallowed lye a few
years earlier. “Old Phoenix Jackson makes her journey on “The Worn Path” to fetch the
“soothing medicine” for her little grandson (DLB 526). When Phoenix reaches her
destination, she informs the attendant of her presence but forgets why she is there. “With
her hands on her knees, the old woman waited, silent, erect and motionless, just as if she
were in armor (163).” After a few minutes, the nurse reminds Phoenix of her purpose and
her face lights up. “I remembers so plain now. I not going to forget him again, no, the
whole enduring time (164).” Phoenix apologizes for being forgetful and vows to never
forget her grandson again.
The nurse hands Phoenix the medicine and she strains her eyes in an attempt to see
the label. The attendant offers Phoenix a few pennies. “It’s Christmas time, Grandma,
said the attendant. Could I give you a few pennies out of my purse (164)?” But the witty
old woman cons the nurse out of a nickel instead. Phoenix taps her makeshift cane and
readies to leave.
She has already decided on how she is going to spend her “newly found”
treasure. “I going to the store and buy my child a little windmill they sells, made out of
paper. He going to find it hard to believe there such a thing in the world (164).”
Knowing that it is Christmas, the loving grandmother is going to buy a gift for her
grandson. “Phoenix’s act of love and compassion is primary to the story: the
deep-grained habit of love (CLC 419).” Indeed, Phoenix’s love for her only living relative
is her greatest strength of all.
Although the ragged old woman suffers from many handicaps, she starts her
journey mentally prepared for the obstacles awaiting her. Phoenix summons her inner
strengths and prevails over every barrier. She relies on her trustworthy feet to make up
for her impaired vision. Her wit makes up for her frail body. Her determination makes up
for her aged memory. But most of all, her love for her grandson her keeps her going.
Clearly, the frail, forgetful, stubborn and loving old woman can overcome anything.
Ford, Richard. “Bonhomie For A Southern Belletrist.” New Yorker 19 Feb. 1996:
Phillips, Robert L. Jr. Contemporary Literary Criticism: Eudora Welty. vol. 33.
ed. Daniel G Marowski. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1985. 419.
Vande Kieft, Ruth. Dictionary of Literary Biography: Eudora Welty. vol. 2. ed.
Jeffrey Helterman. Michigan: Gale Research, 1978. 524-526.
Welty, Eudora. “A Worn Path.” Literature for Composition. 4th ed. Ed. Sylvan
Barnet et al. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. 158-164.