The story, “A Worn Path” by Eudora Welty is one of the most significant and frequently studied works of short fiction. This story is taken place in the South. This region is often characterized by their speech and habits. Eudora Welty’s skillful use of tone and diversity in the story adds action to make it seem more real. Symbolism in “A Worn Path” shows Phoenix Jackson going through a series of obstacles that represent her struggles to achieve her goal.
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First, the time of year in which the story, “A Worn Path” occurs during the Christmas season. According to Greg Barnhisel, this adds to the theme of rebirth. Christmas is a time we open gifts. This gives a representation of the birth of Christ. This is the setting of the story in which everything is symbolized of a greater importance and meaning. An attendant talking to Jackson speaks out, “A charity case, I suppose” (Welty 34). This presents herself as a woman with strong faith and represented as an example of the message of faith. Furthermore, Christ is born in the death of the year and in a near-dead nature-society (Barnhisel). Christ dies in order that the life of others may be saved. This is the powerful Christian explanation of the central irony of human existence, that life means death and death is life.
In addition to the setting, the name of Phoenix Jackson has symbolism. Barnhisel states that “Phoenix Jackson’s name is a reference to a mythical bird called ‘phoenix’.” This bird’s habitat is out in the desert and lives for 500-600 years. The bird sets itself on fire, to rise again from its own ashes (Barnhisel). This symbolizes immortality. Some religions actually believe in rising again, just like Christ. According to Rachel Lister, Welty describes Phoenix as a solitary little bird. Lister states that “some [birds] feature prominently in the story; some symbolize the fragility of Phoenix and her grandson and others are more sinister and seem to presage death.” In the story, Phoenix sees a bob-white “stuffed” in the hunter’s bag, “its beak hooked bitterly to show it was dead (Welty 32). This image oscillates forwards and backwards.
Thirdly, Jackson’s age plays an important role in the story. If the story is written in present time when Eudora Welty wrote it, then the time is 1940 (Barnhisel). Jackson tells that her senses are gone and she thinks that she is the oldest woman alive (Barnhisel). Phoenix talks to the scarecrow telling it “My senses is gone, I too old. I the oldest people I ever know” (Welty 31). It is a thought to think that there were not many girls in the area in which Jackson lives. On the contrary, “when she tells the nurse how old she is and is telling the truth, then she was too old to attend school when Lee surrendered in 1865 (Barnhisel). This was a big issue back in those days and certain requirements that must be met in order to enroll in school. The hunter approaches Phoenix and speaks, “There is no telling mister” (Welty 32). She must have been close to one hundred years old. Jackson’s age keeps her from reaching what she wants to accomplish and puts restrictions on the choices she makes.
The characterization of Jackson is symbolizing the black population as a whole. In a sense, this can make them what we would make them as being naiveté and helpless. According to Greg Barnhisel, some people today still portray them as being viewed this way (Barnhisel). Eudora Welty comes from Mississippi as her own self lives through the civil rights struggles and the Southern Renaissance. Phoenix Jackson “had a pattern all its own of numberless branching wrinkles. . . and the two knobs of her cheeks were illuminated by a yellow burning under the dark” (Welty 30). In addition of Jackson representing the blacks, going back to her elderly age in one way can be beneficial to show that blacks are changeless and eternal. This can be patronizing to converse about this to the entire race of the people. Being black during these times can be in some way overwhelming and being mistreated. One group of critics concludes that Jackson’s imitation of the black race symbolizes the race as being notably sympathetic (Barnhisel). This represents the blacks of having their true complexity as human beings distorted. People still have a tendency today putting an “identity” on blacks and judging them differently.
Fifth, in “A Worn Path”, the story shows symbolism in another way of her characterization. This represents stereotypes throughout this time. In Short Stories for Students, Barnhisel believes that these stereotypes of blacks are represented of their craftiness and dishonesty. There are many stereotypical people today in society. There is a part in the story, “When the hunter drops his nickel and Jackson picks it up” (Welty 33). This represents that in a way, blacks were viewed as “lesser” people. The symbolism of Jackson’s race can fool people and be viewed as judgmental (Barnhisel). All throughout the story, her race has a conflict with everyday living in her society. Greg Barnhisel states, “Is this an indication of courtesy warranted by virtue of her age and her ‘fealty’ to the whole race or it is a comical representation of black helplessness”?
The chains that describe a feeling that Jackson has symbolize social mobility in the South. According to Rachel Lister, “the chains which Phoenix seems to feel about her feet, the thorns, and the barbed wire symbolize the continuing oppression which restricts the social mobility of the African-American people”. Blacks at this time are controlled and not allowed to move freely. Although the white man does not physically harm Phoenix, his words betray the prejudices in the south. The white man threats Phoenix and tells her, “I know you old colored people! Wouldn’t miss going to town to see Santa Claus” (Welty 32). In other words, being black in the South would mean having other people making decisions for you. Eudora Welty grants blacks of human diversity, whether than too much as simple symbols of endurance (Lister). Being black during this time was a very difficult time and was a bad time in society.
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Two objects in the story that readers most often skip over but have very great significance are the diploma and the cake that is described. Lister describes the diploma as not only symbolizing the end of a journey, but also the educational experiences and opportunities that she has been denied for (Lister). The schools were split between colored and white people, in which the white people had more advantages and were free. In addition to the diploma, the cake has great importance also. Phoenix envisions a boy offering her a piece of marble cake. According to Dennis Sykes, this is “the vision of a slice of black and white cake appears to be a reference to the idea of integration in the southâ€¦ [Showing that] Phoenix has an almost hallucinatory vision”. Phoenix is telling the little boy, “that [it] would be acceptable” (Welty 31). In a way, that can be thought of as a conflict of racism.
Phoenix Jackson’s journey to Natchez symbolizes the religion of Christianity. According to Marilyn Keys, the difficulties that Jackson has to go through and temptations along the way to Natchez can represent either the temptations of Christ in the desert or the Stations of the Cross. This all goes back to the beliefs of Christianity. Phoenix was looking for her nickel that she lost. It was given from the nurse for Christmas. She says, “God [is] watching me the whole time” (Welty 33). In addition to her journey, the medicine that Jackson gives to her sick grandson can be seen as Christ figure (Barnhisel). The nurse calls it an act of “charity” (Welty 34). This can be pictured as God’s grace. Sacrifices and suffering are a part of God’s work he gives us to overcome obstacles and rely on God’s help in time of need.
In conclusion, symbolism in “A Worn Path” has great meaning and different themes that relate in society today. It shows us the way different types of people are treated and gives a real-life picture of what life can be being different. The worn path described in the story shows the trials and problems that can happen in everyday things. The characterization of Phoenix Jackson is described as being a typical colored person living her life. Throughout the story, Jackson suffers through many cases, and at times, feels the need to just give up. This story is all about looking beyond those fears and struggles to keep moving forward in life.
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