32. Eudora Welty, “A Worn Path”

by breavman99

eudora welty

I used to teach Eudora Welty’s story, “A Worn Path,” and I still love it anyway. The story’s main character, Phoenix, is “an old Negro woman” (142) walking from her home somewhere “away back off the Old Natchez Trace” (147) into the town of Natchez, Mississippi. The narrator tells us that Phoenix

was very old and small and she walked slowly in the dark pine shadows, moving a little from side to side in her steps, with the balanced heaviness and lightness of a pendulum in a grandfather clock. She carried a thin, small cane made from an umbrella, and with this she kept tapping the frozen earth in front of her. This made a grave and persistent noise in the still air, that seemed meditative like the chirping of a solitary little bird. (142)

Phoenix is poor; her apron is made of “bleached sugar sacks” (142). She is unable to tie her shoes, because her laces “dragged” as she walked, and her eyes are “blue with age,” a description that suggests cataracts (142). As the story unfolds, it also becomes clear to us that she is experiencing some form of age-related cognitive impairment. For most of the story, we don’t know why she has embarked on her journey. All we know is that she is determined to get to Natchez. We don’t know how long her walk is, exactly, but it might be as long as four or five hours, which would mean she walks as far as 20 kilometres. That’s a good morning’s walk for anyone, never mind someone whose wrinkled face suggests that she might be in her eighties. When I taught this story, I knew that none of my students had ever made such a walk—that they couldn’t even imagine walking that far—and that their understanding of the difficulty of Phoenix’s walk was incomplete as a result.

While I was reading Yi-Fu Tuan’s book, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, I thought about “A Worn Path,” and the way the distinction Tuan makes between space and place could be mapped onto this story. “‘Space’ is more abstract than ‘place,’” Tuan writes:

What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value. . . . The ideas ‘space’ and ‘place’ require each other for definition. From the security and stability of place we are aware of the openness, freedom, and threat of space, and vice versa. Furthermore, if we think of space as that which allows movement, then place is pause; each pause in movement makes it possible for location to be transformed into place. (6)

The path of Phoenix’s walk might suggest that it is a space between two places: her home, and her destination in Natchez. But I would argue that because Phoenix is walking, and because that walk is the occasion of a story, and because she knows stories about that path from her repeated journeys along it, her path is actually made up of a series of places linked closely together. Walking and narration, then, turn space into place in this story. But so too does the fact that Phoenix has made this walk many times before. She is following a path worn (at least in part) by her own feet; she knows the obstacles and difficulties she will encounter; and, as we learn at the end of the story, she has been making this walk regularly for two or three years. From what I’ve read over the past months, I’ve determined that turning space into place requires storytelling, repetition, and slow movement (like walking). Tuan thinks that pauses are essential, and I think he’s correct, but I would extend his argument a little: walking is slow enough to enable us to experience space as place, and it also allows for the frequent pauses which Tuan argues are necessary for this transformation to occur.

What places does Phoenix experience? The first is a thicket where Phoenix perceives animals “quivering” (142). She warns the animals not to obstruct her progress:

“Out of my way, all you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons and wild animals! . . . 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 in my direction. I got a long way.” Under her small black-freckled hand her cane, limber as a buggy whip, would switch at the brush as if to rouse up any hiding things. (142)

The next place she encounters presents another challenge: a hill. “Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far,” Phoenix says. “Something always take a hold of me on this hill—pleads I should stay” (143). The climb is difficult, but so too is the descent: “Her eyes opened their widest, and she started down gently” (143). Two things are worth noting about this hill. First, Phoenix identifies it by the trees she encounters: “‘Up through pines,’ she said at length. ‘Now down through oaks’” (143). That identification is part of what helps to make this location a place, rather than undifferentiated space. But the multiple challenges she experiences—the climb, the descent, and a bush that catches her dress—also help to define this hill as place. Phoenix faces these challenges with equanimity, even though her eyesight is clearly a source of difficulty for her: addressing the thorn bush that has caught her dress, she says, “Old eyes thought you was a pretty little green bush” (143).

At the bottom of the hill, the narrator tells us, “was a place where a log was laid across the creek” (143). Phoenix knows this log bridge is there: “Now comes the trial,” she says (143):

Putting her right foot out, she mounted the log and shut her eyes. Lifting her skirt, leveling her cane fiercely before her, like a festival figure in some parade, she began to march across. Then she opened her eyes and was safe on the other side.

“I wasn’t as old as I thought,” she said. (143)

Now comes a pause: a brief stop to rest, during which she either hallucinates, or falls asleep and dreams about, a little boy offering her “a slice of marble-cake” (143). When she returns to her walk, she immediately comes to another place of difficulty: she has to crawl through a barbed-wire fence. Once past the fence, she encounters a stand of “[b]ig dead trees,” on which “sat a buzzard” (144). Both the trees and the buzzard suggest death, which (given Phoenix’s age) is not far off, but the words Phoenix directs at the buzzard—“Who you watching?” (144)—suggest her tenacious hold on life despite her age and apparent infirmity.

Phoenix passes through a field of old cotton—notable because, in winter, it doesn’t contain the hazards of bulls or snakes, as it did earlier in the year, when she saw a two-headed snake (144)—into a field of dead corn. The sense of repetition—of having stories to tell about the locations through which she walks—is an important aspect of the rendering of those locations as place. This corn field presents another obstacle, because there is no path through the field. “Through the maze now,” Phoenix says to herself (144). She mistakes a scarecrow in the field for a ghost, and when she realizes her error, she laughs at herself—“I ought to be shut up for good,” she says (144)—and dances with the scarecrow. At the end of the corn field, Phoenix comes across quail “walking around like pullets, seeming all dainty and unseen” (144). Their movement reminds her of the quality of the path at this point in her walk: “‘Walk pretty,’ she said. ‘This is the easy place. This is the easy going’” (144). She follows “the track” past cabins with boarded-up windows and doors, “all like old women under a spell sitting there” (144). “I walking in their sleep,” Phoenix observes, “nodding her head vigorously” (144). Then she encounters a spring “silently flowing through a hollow log” (144) and stops for a drink. This spring appears to be a well-known place on her route, because she notes, “Nobody know who made this well, for it was here when I was born” (144). Clearly this well is a place she shares with others, all of those who do not know the well’s origin.

After crossing a swamp—“Sleep on, alligators, and blow your bubbles,” Phoenix says (145)—the track goes up into a road, where Phoenix is knocked down by a black dog: “Over she went in the ditch, like a little puff of milkweed” (145). She briefly loses consciousness and, when she recovers, finds she cannot stand without help. That assistance comes from a white man who has his own dog on a chain. He patronizes her, calling her “Granny” and dismissing her desire to go to town as a mere desire “to see Santa Claus” (145), but he does help her up. More importantly, Phoenix notices that a nickel dropped out of the man’s pocket onto the ground. She encourages the man to chase the black dog away by praising its courage and size, and while he is doing that, she carefully bends over and pockets the nickel. “God watching me the whole time,” she says. “I come to stealing” (146). When the man returns, he points his rifle directly at Phoenix and asks if she is frightened. “No sir, I seen plenty go off closer by, in my day, and for less than what I done” (146)—a reference to her theft of the nickel, I presume. The man departs with a warning: “you take my advice and stay home, and nothing will happen to you” (146). The point of retelling this event is that Phoenix’s encounter with the hunter will (assuming she remembers it) become another story she will tell herself the next time she is walking along that road, like the two-headed snake or the well where she drank. Spaces become places as they are experienced and as stories are told about them, and that otherwise nondescript roadside will become another story for Phoenix.

When she arrives in Natchez, Phoenix is exhausted and confused by the coloured Christmas lights; she “would have been lost if she had not distrusted her eyesight and depended on her feet to know where to take her” (146). That embodied knowledge is another way in which undifferentiated space becomes place: Phoenix knows the way with her body, rather than her eyes or her conscious mind. In Natchez, she once again triumphs over a white person, stopping a well-dressed woman carrying presents to ask she would tie her shoes. That woman also patronizes Phoenix, calling her “Grandma,” but she does as Phoenix asks (147). Then Phoenix continues walking “until her feet knew to stop” (147). She has arrived at her destination: a doctor’s office. However, tired from her walk, she has forgotten the purpose of her journey, a lapse which frightens her. Nevertheless, prompted by the nurse, she recalls the purpose of her long walk. She receives medicine for her grandson and demands another nickel from the “attendant” (148-49). Now that she has 10 cents, she intends to buy her grandson “a little windmill they sells, made out of paper. He going to find it hard to believe there such a thing in the world” (149). 

“A Worn Path” is about a lot of things: love, determination, the need for objects capable of generating wonder along with more practical things. But it is also about place, I think, and the way that repeated walking journeys have made the path that Phoenix travels into a place or, at least, into a series of contiguous places. Movement, in this story, is not divorced from place-making, as it is in Tuan’s discussion of place, and that makes “A Worn Path” a useful (if fictional) example of the potential for mobile forms of place-making, especially place-making through walking.

Works Cited

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. U of Minnesota P, 1977.

Welty, Eudora. “A Worn Path.” The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980, pp. 142-49.