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Read James Roberts Saunders’ Article

Step One: Read James Roberts Saunders’ Article

Title: ‘A Worn Path’: The Eternal Quest of Welty’s Phoenix Jackson

Author(s): James Robert Saunders

Publication Details: The Southern Literary Journal 25.1 (Fall 1992): p62-73.

Source: Short Story Criticism. Ed. Anna J. Sheets. Vol. 27. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998. From Literature Resource Center.

Document Type: Critical essay

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Research, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning

Full Text:

[In the following essay, Saunders surveys various critical interpretations of “A Worn Path,” emphasizing the story’s ambiguous meaning and exploring its thematic affinities with other works of fiction.]

Of all the ingenious stories written by Eudora Welty over the past half century, it is perhaps “A Worn Path” that is most intriguing in terms of its ability to defy simple explanation. In a relatively early essay entitled “Life for Phoenix” [Sewanee Review, Vol. 71, 1963], Neil Isaacs manages to conclude that “the whole story is suggestive of a religious pilgrimage, while the conclusion implies that the return trip will be like the journey of the Magi, with Phoenix following a star (the marvelous windmill) to bring a gift to the child (medicine, also windmill).” Indeed the tale is in some sense, to use Isaacs’ word, “suggestive” of a religious quest. The story begins conspicuously on a cold December morning, and just as quickly we are made aware that there is an old black woman “coming along a path through the pinewoods.” We observe her as she negotiates a series of obstacles in that wilderness on her way to Natchez, Mississippi, presumably to pick up some medicine for her grandson who, according to the nurse’s calculation near the story’s end, had swallowed a certain amount of lye two or three years earlier. Elaborating further on the biblical analysis, Isaacs interprets:

there are references to the Eden story (the ordering of the species, the snake in summer to be avoided), to the parting of the Red Sea (Phoenix walking through the field of corn), to a sequence of temptations, to the River Jordan and the City of Heaven (when Phoenix gets to the river, sees the city shining, and hears the bells ringing; then there is the angel who waits on her, tying her shoes), to the Christ-child in the manger (Phoenix describing her grandson as ‘all wrapped up’ in ‘a little patch quilt … like a little bird’ with ‘a sweet look’).

All things considered, Isaacs’ analogies are quite astute and provide us with the basis for a most interesting perspective: Phoenix Jackson is involved in that crucial search for meaning in life that is founded on basic Christian principles and designed, upon completion, to provide her with life-giving sustenance. Even if she is, due both to her advancing years and the nature of her difficult mission, about to die by the story’s end, it is only so that life might be affirmed through acquisition of the medicine her grandson needs.

Nevertheless, Roland Bartel specifies the story’s uncertain ending as indicative of something much more pessimistic. Entitling his brief explication “Life and Death in Eudora Welty’s ‘A Worn Path,’” [Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 14, 1977] he urges us to “consider seriously the possibility that her grandson is, in fact, dead.” Presumably the lye that had been swallowed earlier was fatal, and now Phoenix has become engaged in a self-sacrificing ritual that carries her painfully over hills and through cave-like woods to get the “soothing medicine” that can only serve as a reminder of defeat. Commenting on what might be the significance of her name, Bartel continues, “If her grandson is dead, then the rebirth implied in her name is doubly pathetic: she unwittingly makes the journey to meet her own needs rather than her grandson’s, and what begins as a life-sustaining journey seems to end in a journey of death.” Bartel argues vehemently for the prospect that Phoenix is just “a feeble old woman whose active imagination rescues her from the harshest aspects of her existence.” But by the time she has acquired her medicine, which is the purpose of her mission, she must (as Bartel has deduced) turn her limited sights toward returning home. The story ends with Jackson walking out of the doctor’s office, and then “her slow step began on the stairs, going down.” Conveyed in that very last line of the story is the sense that Jackson had expended practically all of her energy on the journey and thus might not be able to make it back to her grandson even if he is alive. At one point, on her way to the doctor ‘s office, she is shown lying in the midst of the wilderness flat on her back, unable to rise until a helpful hunter approaches to lend a hand, and yet there was a certain crispness in her response when that hunter had asked what she was doing there. “Lying on my back like a June-bug waiting to be turned over” is what she says, and while a june bug in such a situation is not necessarily doomed, it is Bartel’s belief that senility is setting in for Jackson and “she has risen from the ashes for the last time.”

In arriving at his conclusion Bartel rightfully draws on the Egyptian legend of the phoenix. One would be remiss not to do so in light of the protagonist’s first name, However, whereas Bartel is somehow able to see the phoenix as indicative of Phoenix Jackson ‘s ultimate demise, it is more appropriate to remember t the phoenix legend has its origin in an area of the world known as the “cradle of civilization” and also most appropriate to consider that Welty might intend for us to combine the legend with her story to unveil a process that goes on into infinity. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes the phoenix as a fabulous bird connected with the worship of the sun especially in ancient Egypt and in classical antiquity. It was known to Hesiod, and descriptions of its appearance and behavior occur in ancient literature sporadically, with variations in detail, from Herodotus’ account of Egypt onward. The phoenix is said to be as large as an eagle, with brilliant scarlet and gold plumage and a melodious cry. Only one phoenix exists at any time. It is very long-lived; no ancient authority gives it a life span of less than 500 years; some say it lives for 1,461 years (an Egyptian Sothic Period): an extreme estimate is 97,200. As its end approaches the phoenix fashions a nest of aromatic boughs and spices, sets it on fire, and is consumed in the flames. From this pyre miraculously springs a new phoenix.

Besides sharing that amazing bird’s name, Phoenix resembles it in other ways. She “was an old Negro woman with her head tied in a red rag.” The color of that head apparel cannot be accepted as coincidental; recall the scarlet plumage of the ancient bird. Remember, as well, how that creature from antiquity is able to recreate itself by casting its body into a self-made fire. When asked the gripping question of whether or not her grandson is alive or dead, there has to come “a flicker and then a flame of comprehension” before the author’s Phoenix can respond—after what amounts to some sort of mystical conversion—that “he is just the same.” The nurse had asked six times about the condition of h grandson before Phoenix was inclined to answer. Perhaps we should accept this as an indication of senility. The protagonist herself subsequently begs forgiveness, explaining, “I never did go to school, I was too old at the Surrender … I’m an old woman without an education. It was my memory fail me.” We can believe that is the proper explanation or we can wonder, instead, how anyone forgets the purpose of so long and tedious a quest. During that nurse’s interrogation, “Phoenix only waited and stared straight ahead, her face very solemn and withdrawn into rigidity” as if bracing herself against the onslaught of suspicion. She apologizes as most any black person of her day would have done in that situation, but she never once denies the nature of her function.

Critic Grant Moss insists [in “’A Worn Path’ Retrod,” CLA Journal, Vol. 15, 1971] that Welty refused to use black dialect so that she might add “to the universality of her main chara whole” (“Retrod”). He goes on to say:

It could have easily been an old white woman in the same circumstances as those of old Phoenix who set out that December morning on a journey to town on a mission like that of Old Phoenix. It could have been an old Czechoslovakian, Greek, or German peasant woman, who, in her own country, went across fields, through woods, over a stream, painfully into a village for the same purpose yesterday, or long ago, or ages ago. But it happened to be an old woman whom Miss Welty identifies as a Negro woman.

Certainly, there have been other old women in various times and places who have merited the rendering of a tale so that the world will not forget their vast accomplishments. But to believe that Phoenix Jackson just “happened to be” an old black woman is to ignore an all-too-vital aspect of our nation’s history. She, in particular, has been as crucial an element in the development of moral fiber as anything one might imagine.

William Faulkner was aware of this phenomenon, and while he portrayed the effects of a disappearing wilderness, the breakdown of the family, and the haunting shadows of the Civil War, he also left us Dilsey to evaluate. One watches in awe at the overwhelming chaos of The Sound and the Fury while she, quite naturally, takes the idiot Compson child “to the bed and drew him down beside her and she held him, rocking back and forth, wiping his drooling mouth upon the hem of her skirt.” It is that frightened, whining retarded child of the Compsons who represents what is most pitiable about us, and it is Dilsey who caters to him as though he were the most important. Before accepting this comparison between the two black women (Faulkner’s Dilsey and Welty’s Phoenix), however, it is apropos to examine what some might call a marked distinction. Benjy is not even Dilsey’s child while Phoenix’s grandchild has evidently swallowed lye; negligence would seem to be a factor in the latter case. What happened to the grandson’s parents? How did he come to be in Jackson’s charge? Still, however we might resolve this issue in our minds, whether parental absence is due to fate or the parents’ fault, Phoenix is just as prepared to meet the challenge.

There is no need to limit ourselves to Dilsey as we search for adequate comparisons. Margaret Walker’s Jubilee is a celebration of this spirit. Based on the life of Walker’s maternal great-grandmother, Margaret Duggans Ware Brown, the novel serves to chronicle the life and times of its main character, Vyry, who, like Phoenix and so many others, was born into slavery but given the chance to see her race evolve away from that degrading institution. What makes Vyry different from any other character in that novel is how she is able to be consistent in the retention of humanistic values in spite of how circumstances resulting from the Civil War tear at the hearts of other southern victims until their stability is utterly destroyed. While others flee in the face of the Union surge, Vyry remains behind with the enfeebled Miss Lillian for the simple reason that her former mistress needs her most. Later in the book, as she and her newfound husband search during the bitter Reconstruction era for a home from which they will not be driven, she responds to a young white man who instinctively appeals to her in time of crisis. In that “I reckon I can be a granny in a pinch” chapter, the young man pleads, “Oh lady, help me please, my wife’s having a baby, please come in quick,” and within a matter of moments we hear Vyry, who had only become a mother recently herself, comforting the stranger’s pregnant wife, “Now lie still on your back and I’ll hold your knees for you and when you feels the pain again, close your mouth and grit your teeth and bear down hard like you is on the pot.” An hour later, that “granny in a pinch” had “cleaned the baby and dressed him, and left the mother, clean and comfortable, ready for sleep.” Rejecting the father’s offer of payment, that “granny” nevertheless promises to return the next morning to make sure that complications don’t o in words written by Walker that smack of what might be Welty’s theme, “touched with a spiritual fire and permeated with a spiritual wholeness that had been forged in a crucible of suffering.” Once again, the Egyptian phoenix comes to mind as Walker adds how her protagonist was only a living sign and mark of all the best that any human being could hope to become. In her obvious capacity for love, redemptive and forgiving love, she was alive and standing on the highest peaks of her time and human person unlettered and untutored, she was nevertheless the best true example of the motherhood of her race, an ever present assurance that nothing could destroy a people whose sons had come from her loins.

Such laudatory words serve as a fitting tribute to the humble figure of a woman who inhabits the pages of Walker’s novel as well as the texts of other writers who have rendered their interpretations of this special type of character and what her presence means. For Welty, the character epitomizes three important things. To begin with, Phoenix is a gifted child of nature. “Far out in the country” is the place from which she comes and, as she travels over her path toward the city of Natchez, elements of nature caress her along the way. Struggling on an incline, she remarks to herself, “Something always take a hold of me on this hill—pleads I should stay.” It is possible that this “something” is the strain that going uphill poses, but it is more than likely that the very woods are reaching out to one who is their own. Going down the hill, her skirts get caught on a thorny bush; nimble fingers free them time and time again. “It was not possible to allow the dress to tear,” our narrator says. Only, we are not really sure if it is nimble fingers that will absolutely not allow it or the thorny bush itself which will not harm the garments of an essential sister. Such a theory is not outlandish considering the author’s use of personification to achieve the desired spiritual effect. She transcends a barbed-wire fence, and big “dead trees, like black men with one arm, were standing in the purple stalks of the withered cotton field.” Soon after, she thinks back to the previous summer wh snakes were in abundance, and she is grateful as she passes through that old cotton and the dead corn that “whispered and shook and was taller than her head.” Just as those dead trees—which are indeed only dead in the strictly biological sense—have waved her by with their one-armed communal greeting, the dead corn stalks must rise to guide her through. “Thorns, you doing your appointed work,” Phoenix maintained earlier. Those sharp protrusions, harmful as they are to some, have helped this story’s traveler to proceed on her precisely ordained course.

Mere human vision would not have been sufficient for the journey. In fact, before traversing a narrow log that had been laid across a creek, Phoenix actually closed her eyes and then “leveling her cane fiercely before her, like a festival figure in some parade, she began to march across.” The cane she brandishes has particular significance, for having once been an umbrella that shielded humans from the elements of nature, it now facilitates communion, and in the still air of the winter Phoenix taps this vital instrument upon the frozen earth to produce a sound that is “meditative like the chirping of a solitary little bird.” Once she arrives at the log, a bridge that nature has provided, she can “march” across without even looking until she has reached the other side. On she marches through some areas that have no path at all, but she continues “parting her way from side to side with the cane, through the whispering field.”

Shortly thereafter, Phoenix takes advantage of a trail that has been left by wagon wheels.

She followed the track, swaying through the quiet bare fields, through the little strings of trees silver in their dead leaves, past cabins silver from weather, with the doors and windows boarded shut, all like old women under a spell sitting there. “I walking in their sleep,” she said, nodding her head vigorously.

The going has gotten somewhat easier upon this encountering of places where humankind has been before, but those were also special human beings not so much detached from nature as they were from a surrounding modern world. The “quiet bare fields,” “trees silver in their dead leaves,” and “cabins silver from weather” are “all like old women under a spell sitting there.” “I walking in their sleep,” the traveler speaks in curious phraseology that serves to show how her communion carries on.

Other fiction writers have employed this theme. In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, as Celie learns to love herself, she comes to include the air and birds and trees. In fact, we don’t know what to think exactly as, after a rather lengthy process of self-actualization, she concludes, “I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed.” That she has become in tune with nature is quite evident, but even more intriguing is how she and nature are one and the same. Again, in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon we are witness to a character, Pilate, who is so close to nature that she is apart from others in the world. There were no street lights in her part of town and no electricity or gas in her quaint home. She and her daughter “warmed themselves and cooked with wood and coal, pumped kitchen water into a dry sink through a pipeline from a well and lived pretty much as though progress was a word that meant walking a little farther on down the road.” We learn, furthermore, that on the edge of town her “house sat eighty feet from the sidewalk and was backed by four huge pine trees, from which she got the needles she stuck into her mattress.” Certainly, it can be argued that those circumstances of adulthood are unusual until we learn “how she loved, as a girl, to chew pine needles and as a result smelled even then like a forest.”

Yes, a child who eats of trees will smell like trees; it might have been a matter of no more or less than that. But Celie and Pilate, as well as Welty’s Phoenix, are endowed with special power so that even when a “flashing” nickel falls from the hunter’s pocket, Phoenix’s “fingers slid down and along the ground under the piece of money with the grace and care they would have in lifting an egg from under a setting hen.” However, at this point it is no longer Phoenix who is acting, for she simply “stood erect, and the nickel was in her apron pocket.” A bird conspicuously flies overhead and we are made to know that this is not just thievery, in the sense of some outrageous crime, but a certain kind of natural redistribution that has taken place between the hunter who shoots bobwhites and Welty’s keeper of the woods. It was Harper Lee, speaking through the voice of Atticus Finch, who had warned, “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” (Mockingbird). “All they do is sing their hearts out for us,” Miss Maudie adds. Anyone who has heard the melodious calling of the bobwhite bird knows how it would be should they become extinct. Their greatest “crime,” like that of the mockingbird, lies in the singing that makes them the hunters’ prey. In “A Worn Path” it becomes a phoenix burden to avenge, at least in some small way, the “bitter” fate.

Somewhat similarly, Phoenix is the designated protector of another worthy innocent. Isaacs sees her grandson as symbolic of the Christ child, and this is understandable. That grandson with the “sweet look” was capable of infinite suffering. Moreover, Phoenix is shown declaring to the doctor’s nurse that she “could tell him from all the others in creation.” But there is a difficulty in that strictly theological approach. In an analysis of Flannery O’Connor’s “The Artificial Nigger,” Louis Rubin remembers a comment made by O’Connor during a symposium at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. O’Connor had regretfully conveyed, “So many students approach a story as if it were a problem in algebra; find x and when they find x they can dismiss the rest of it” (“Company”). Agreeing with that statement on literary limitation, Rubin proposes, “What we need is criticism that will explore the complexity of the work, and not merely seek to use it to make theological observations.” Even with writers who come from areas of strong religious background, there is a danger in the rendering of biblical perspective. Like O’Connor, Welty hails from the southern Bible Belt where such considerations are quite necessary; yet, this does not mean Phoenix must be Moses and her grandson, by biblical comparison, is absolutely Christ. The meaning behind the grandson will not be so easy to uncover.

While there is also a bit of difficulty in taking literally everything an author says about her work, it will perhaps be helpful to examine what Welty says about this story as a means to analyze the second thing that Phoenix might epitomize. Bartel has placed much emphasis on the question of whether or not the grandson is alive, and in her essay entitled “Is Phoenix Jackson’s Grandson Really Dead?” Welty reveals that as the question she is asked most often through the mail. This is how she chooses to respond:

The grandson’s plight was real and it made the truth of the story, which is the story of an errand of love carried out. If the child no longer lived, the truth would persist in the “wornness” of the path. But his being dead can’t increase the truth of the story, can’t affect it one way or the other. I think I signal this, because the end of the story has been reached before old Phoenix gets home again: she simply starts back. To the question “Is the grandson really dead?” I could reply that it doesn’t make any difference. I could also say that I did not make him up in order to let him play a trick on Phoenix. But my best answer would be: “Phoenix is alive.”

There is some hesitancy on the part of Welty as she provides this explanation. As to that question concerning the possibility of the grandson’s death, she answers, “I could reply that it doesn’t make any difference” and “I could also say that I did not make him up in order to let him play a trick.” Such ambivalence makes us inclined to take to heart what she had said some twenty years before in another piece, dated 1955, entitled “Writing and Analyzing a Story.” Then she had asserted, “I never saw, as reader or writer, that a finished story stood in need of any more from the author.” Nevertheless one tends to accept what she does say in later years about her complex story. What interest could she have had in tricking Phoenix? Furthermore, it must not be too crucial whether the grandson is alive or dead; the story has been most effective at the same time that we do not know. Welty directs our focus, instead, to the fact that Phoenix is alive and has been successful in her errand carried out in love. Without love, Phoenix could not have made the arduous journey along that route toward Natchez for the grandson’s medicine. Vyry is gifted with a spirit that is just the same. Margaret Walker’s character professes:

God knows I ain’t got no hate in my heart for nobody. If I is and doesn’t know it, I prays to God to take it out. I ain’t got no time to be hating. I believes in God and I believes in trying to love and help everybody, and I knows that humble is the way. I doesn’t care what you calls me, that’s my doctrine and I’m gwine preach it to my childrens, every living one I got or ever hopes to have.

One remembers the sometimes torturous position of black women during slavery and wonders how those conditions could have nurtured such a doctrine. In the midst of slavery, and for years beyond, there have been solitary women, black and oppressed though they might have been, who were rightfully declared as mothers to a world. We see the situation yet again in Langston Hughes’ autobiographical novel Not Without Laughter, where the child is raised by a grandmother who offers him this lesson:

“White peoples maybe mistreats you ‘n hates you, but when you hates ’em back, you’s de one what’s hurted, ’cause hate makes yo’ heart ugly—that’s all it does. It closes up de sweet door to life an’ makes ever’thing small an’ mean an’ dirty. Honey, there ain’t no room in de world fo’ hate, white folks hatin’ niggers, an’ niggers hatin’ white folks. There ain’t no room in this world fo’ nothin’ but love, Sandy chile. That’s all they’s room fo’—nothin’ but love.”

Only pages into the novel, we become aware of that grandmother’s altruistic character. A cyclone rages and not long after, she has ventured out to see where she is needed. The narrator informs, “All the neighborhood, white or colored, called his grandmother when something happened.” As was the case with Walker’s Vyry and Welty’s Phoenix, Hughes’ old black woman “always came” although, just as with Vyry, “Sometimes they paid her and sometimes they didn’t.” The capacity for endless love is compensation in itself; it is the only fuel these women need to journey. We can believe what Welty says: whether or not the grandson in her story is alive or dead, it is the memory of love that keeps old Phoenix going.

This process of keeping on is the third important thing that Phoenix epitomizes. It was the white hunter who had warned her, “you take my advice and stay home, and nothing will happen to you.” There is enough of an understanding between the hunter and the woman for him to be genuinely concerned; he had helped her off her back and shared a word or two. But he cannot comprehend it all. “You must be a hundred years old, and scared of nothing,” he admires. More than likely, the second part of what he says is true; however, the matter of her age is not so simple when we contemplate that she has always been around to do her duty. Whether it be 500 or 97,200 years ago that her initial trek began, the phoenix represents unqualified persistence.

Another white character in the story is caught between comprehension and naivete with regard to Welty’s austere grandmother. Clearly, the woman with the Christmas packages has an edge on others; note how Phoenix is able to pick her from the throng. Furthermore, this stranger “gave off perfume like the red roses in hot summer.” The signal harkens back to nature, and Phoenix asks, “Please, missy, will you lace up my shoe?” “Can’t lace ’em with a cane,” that old black woman further emphasizes. A good question to ask is why Phoenix won’t just sit down on a bench, release the cane, and tie the shoes herself? That stranger does not think about this possibility; she merely ties the shoes out of respect. Beyond this, it would be too much to ask that the white shopper ascertain the value of the makeshift cane and comprehend why Phoenix will not let it go.

It is only after Phoenix makes it to the doctor’s office that she encounters one who is obdurate. “Speak up, Grandma,” the white attendant is immediately brusque. She demands to know the older woman’s name, but before Phoenix can even answer, the attendant is demanding once again, “What seems to be the trouble with you?” Bothered none at all, Phoenix merely twitches and remains intent on fulfilling her great mission. Just as that attendant is at the point of losing all patience, screaming, “Are you deaf?” the white nurse comes right in to show compassion. “We won’t keep you standing after your long trip” she consoles. Even as that nurse prods our traveler with questions about her grandson’s condition, she does so with an air of gentleness. “You musn’t take up our time this way, Aunt Phoenix” is the most insistent that the nurse will get before Phoenix, with a hint of recognition, finally responds. What Phoenix recognizes is that the nurse is in possession of some understanding of her journey. In what might at first seem to be a matter-of-fact reply, the nurse allows, “Throat never heals, does it?” If the throat has never healed, why is it that Phoenix only needs to make the trip but once at the exact same time each year? She actually becomes a symbol for the world to see, a model of determination. And the gesture is not lost, for the attendant who had been unkind before now offers Phoenix money; this in itself does not present solution (recall the nickel Phoenix picked up from the hunter) but it does give hope for the future as it will go toward the purchase of a windmill (or star) upon which wishes can be made.

During the time that Welty’s story was created, such hope may well have been a rare commodity. There was no formal integration, and atrocities such as those involving Emmett Till, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney were yet to come. Mississippi, with its incomparable natural beauty, has been plagued with stigmas far back into time. The city of Natchez, toward which old Phoenix journeys, has itself been belabored with a brutal past.

When the nurse declares to Phoenix, “it’s an obstinate case,” she does not just mean to say that the grandson’s ailment is persistent. One remembers the autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, where Maya Angelou tells us the story of a childhood toothache. With the nearest black dentist twenty-five miles away in Texarkana, the burden falls on Annie Henderson, one more black grandmother, to try and get a white dentist to see Angelou right there in Stamps, Arkansas, where the author was being reared. At that white dentist’s office, Henderson is insistent but the practitioner responds, “Annie, you know I don’t treat nigra, colored people.” The grandmother implores again; the dentist says, “I don’t treat colored people.” Finally the old black woman resorts to calling in a debt, reminding Dr. Lincoln, “seems like maybe you owe me a favor or two,” and as the dentist reddens, we conjure up the past. It is the same past Faulkner could not do without, and so he dedicated Go Down, Moses to his mammy, Caroline Barr, who incidently lived to be a hundred too. It is a past filled with mammies who had provided for white children better than they did their own, giving love and dedication even when almost every circumstance dictated otherwise. In Welty’s story the doctor would probably not, even in that era of house calls, have gone to a black home; furthermore, a black child would probably not have had access to his facility. But still, Phoenix comes to get the medicine and the nurse reminds, “The doctor said as long as you came to get it, you could have it.” Phoenix Jackson will continue to come in, her quest far too important to just end. In her essay entitled “Is Phoenix Jackson’s Grandson Really Dead?” the artist shifts attention to a mighty cause. “The path is the thing that matters” she has said, and we must suspect that the patient traveler can trod this way until the end of time.

Source Citation (MLA 7th Edition)

Saunders, James Robert. “‘A Worn Path’: The Eternal Quest of Welty’s Phoenix Jackson.” The Southern Literary Journal 25.1 (Fall 1992): 62-73. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Anna J. Sheets. Vol. 27. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 20 May 2013.

Document URL (Links to an external site.)

As I thoroughly explained in Step Two: Video Lecture for Week Seven, after reading and examining Saunders’ critique (posted here: Step One: Read Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path”), you must now write a summary of his article and submit it here.

The summary should be between 150 – 200 words, and you should capture Saunders’ argument without offering your own opinion. All of the details are in the above video.

Write a 800 word analytical essay and outline


Comparison of the Phoenix’s

What one person sees in an individual may be completely different from the next. At times, one must sit back and analyze the individual person and determine if they truly are what they seem. One can assume many things about Phoenix Jackson by reading Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path”; however, there is more to Phoenix than what is conveyed on paper.Robert Saunders dissects other aspects of Jackson’s character in his analysis of “’A Worn Path’: The Eternal Quest of Welty’s Phoenix Jackson”,as do I in my character analysis essay “Sheer Determination”.

Saunders and I both agree that Phoenix Jackson has set out on a task that is grueling at best. I describe in my essay, “Sheer Determination,” that Phoenix is an “an old, frail woman (1)” and “she is not concerned with the long path in front of her… [she] beings her journey without the worry of the cold (1).” Saunders believes Phoenix is near death by stating,“Due both to her advancing years and the nature of her difficult mission, [she is] about to die by the story’s end (2).” These are both descriptions of her age and the relating long journey that lies ahead of her.However, I do not share the feeling that Phoenix is going to die by the end of the story as Saunders’ does.Saunders’ further confirms my belief that Phoenix is a determined woman when he writes, “[Phoenix] actually becomes a symbol for the world to see, a model of determination (8).”

Another analysis of Phoenix Jackson is Saunders’ description of her in the town of Natchez. He is more gifted in the way he depicts Phoenix in this setting claiming, “Another white character is caught between comprehension and naiveté with regard to Welty’s austere grandmother (8).” He is speaking of a previous encounter with a white farmer prior to her arrival to Natchez and a current encounter she is having with a white woman on the streets in Natchez. Theseencounters did not spark an interest in me when I was analyzing her character. However, I do see now how this is relevant to her character in the story and the actual character of the people she engages. These white individuals are both depicted as kind and concerned without prejudice to her race. In my analysis, I focused more of the kindness in the receptionist’s concern for Phoenix’s grandson by stating, “The receptionist enquires if her grandson is ok, still alive (2)” while Phoenix waits on his medication.

The differences between Saunders’ and my view of Phoenix is how he has several references to the mythical bird phoenix. Saunders explains “The color of that head apparel cannot be accepted as coincidental” (2) when describing what Phoenix was wearing as she ventured out into the woods. He continues to reference the mythical bird when he is analyzing other works. I cannot help but feel Phoenix is just an old woman like Saunders’ states in the beginning of the article when he depicts her death.I do feel she is an anomaly among people by the way she is determined to complete her mission, but I do not believe in mythical creatures.

The revelation I have come to is there are marked differences in the way Saunders and I view Phoenix Jackson. Saunders is very detailed in his analysis of the protagonist in “A Worn Path,” much more than myself. We do share a few similarities when it comes to the determination that is depicted by Phoenix’s character. Saunders claims, “[Phoenix] was nevertheless the best true example of the motherhood of her race, an ever present assurance that nothing could destroy a people whose son has come from her loins (3).” This is the most important observation anyone could make of this character. Phoenix is a selfless woman who braved the winter to fetch medication for her sick grandson.

Works Cited

Stephens, C. (21 April 2015). Sheer Determination. Unpublished Paper.

Saunders, James Robert. “‘A Worn Path’: The Eternal Quest of Welty’s Phoenix

Jackson.” The Southern Literary Journal 25.1 (Fall 1992): p62-73 Web. 24 April 2015.


Saunders versus Guest: Comparisons and Differences

Thesis: My argument that Phoenix Jackson is an immortal spirit finds strong support in

Saunders’ article based on these important points: the resemblance between Phoenix

and the phenomenal bird she shares her name with, Phoenix is a gifted child of nature,

and Phoenix is a symbol of persistence.

  1. Phoenix and the Phenomenal Bird
  1. Red Rag tied around Head
  2. The Phoenix lives no less than 500 Years
  3. Mystical Conversion at the Clinic
  1. Gifted Child of Nature
  1. Woods Reach out to Their Own
  2. Mere Human Vision Insufficient
  3. Flash of the Nickel
  1. Symbol of Persistence
  1. Obstacles of Nature
  2. Confrontation with the Hunter
  3. Phoenix Makes Journey 3 Years

Saunders versus Guest: Comparisons and Differences

Many have tried to explain or interpret Eudora Welty’s fascinating short story, “A Worn Path”. This essay will attempt to compare my character analysis of Phoenix Jackson to “The Eternal Quest of Welty’s Phoenix Jackson” by James Robert Saunders. My argument that Phoenix Jackson is an immortal spirit finds strong support in Saunders’ article based on these important points: the resemblance between Phoenix and the phenomenal bird she shares her name with, Phoenix is a gifted child of nature, and Phoenix is a symbol of persistence.

Saunders discusses Roland Bartel’s explanation of“A Worn Path”. Saunders says that “One would be remiss not to associate the protagonist with the Egyptian legend of the phoenix”. Saunders believes that Welty intended for us to combine the legend with her story to reveal the process of infinity (Saunders). Saunders goes on to say, “Besides sharing that astonishing bird’s name, Phoenix resembles it in other ways,” the head tied in a red rag compared to the bird’s scarlet plumage, and the phoenix lives no less than five hundred years. Saunders also points out that at the clinic in Natchez, Phoenix undergoes a mystical conversion, “a flicker and then a flame of comprehension” (qtd. in Welty). All of these things are similar to my analysis in Essay 1, Phoenix’s name represents the mythological bird, the bird has red and gold plumage, one of Phoenix’s characteristics is a red rag around her head. “As I also state in Essay 1, when Phoenix arrives at the clinic, a change comes over her. She stares blankly ahead, and suddenly, a flicker and then a flash of recognition. Phoenix is reborn.”

According to Saunders, “Phoenix is a gifted child of nature,” but one might argue that the phoenix is also of nature. When Phoenix Jackson struggles up the hill, she says to herself, “Something always take a hold of me on this hill–pleads I should stay” (Welty). Saunders suggests, “It is more than likely that the very woods are reaching out to one who is their own.” Saunders explains, “Mere human vision would not have been sufficient for the journey.” He associates this with Phoenix closing her eyes to walk across the log over the creek. I agree that human vision would not be adequate for the journey. I believe Phoenix is able to cross the log due to experience. She has made this trip countless times. Phoenix sees the flash of the nickel as it falls from the hunter’s pocket. Birds are known for their superior eyesight. This is just another characteristic Phoenix assimilates from the bird. Welty notes, that Phoenix’s “fingers slid down and along the ground under the piece of money with the grace and care they would have in lifting an egg from under a setting hen.” This suggests to me, the talons of the bird carrying the egg of myrrh to Heliopolis just as the legend of the phoenix claims.

Saunders observes that “Phoenix epitomizes persistence, she keeps on.” This is evident in the obstacles of nature on the worn path which she encounters: the thorn bush, the log across the creek, the barbed wire fence, the thick woods, and hilly terrain. Throughout it all Phoenix does not give up, she relentlessly precedes. When Phoenix falls into a ditch and cannot get up, ahunter comes along and helps her out. Then he tries to intimidate her by pointing his shotgun at her. “As I said in my first essay, Phoenix does not flinch.” The hunter says, “You must be a hundred years old, and scared of nothing” (Welty). The hunter tells Phoenix she needs to stay home, but she has a mission and will not be swayed. Saunders states, “Whether it be five hundred or ninety seven thousand two hundred years ago that her initial trek began, the phoenix represents unconditional persistence.” Just like the bird, Phoenix Jackson represents this same unconditional persistence. Saunders concludes that Phoenix is a model of determination and I

must agree. The nurse at the clinic explains to the attendant that Phoenix has made this journey for three years and as long as she comes to the clinic she can have her grandson’s medicine. Saunders acknowledges that Phoenix is a protector of the innocent and without love, she could not make her formidable journey. Phoenix will continue to make this journey despite the indignities of nature and mankind. She will continue to rise again.

There is a striking resemblance between Saunders beliefs and my own regarding Phoenix Jackson. In my opinion this resemblance in our beliefs is much stronger than the differences. Therefore, the similarities strengthen my original analysis of Eudora Welty’s character, Phoenix Jackson.

Guest 1

Works Cited

Guest, D. 26 April 2015. “Essay 1.” Unpublished Paper.

Saunders, James Robert. “’A Worn Path’: The Eternal Quest of Welty’s Phoenix Jackson.”The

Southern Literary Journal 25.1 (1992): 62-73. Web. 23 April 2015.

Welty, Eudora. “A Worn Path.” The Collected Works of Eudora Welty (1980): Web. 13 April


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