Welty’s Use of the Journey Motif in “A Worn Path”

by Julia

Eudora Welty’s famous short stories continue to capture the imagination of readers everywhere. She is never predictable, never angry, but so brutally honest This great, and sometimes terrible, truth is seen most clearly through her characters. They are the beautiful, the slave, the child, and the tortured soul: Welty writes through the eyes of a hundred different people. One of her stories, “The Worn Path,” demonstrates this. Welty uses the journey of an old Negro woman to turn an otherwise unnoticed, but no less extraordinary, occurrence into something redeeming. “A Worn Path” tells the story of Phoenix Jackson, a grandmother who sets out on a long walk to town.

Welty’s motif is very consistent throughout the text. Rather like a small child on some great treasure quest, so Jackson marches along, refusing to allow anything to stop her. Her childlike determination is seen through a constant dialogue with the surrounding forest and herself. Behind an old, poor, beaten down woman there is a voice of great innocence. Behind her childish and naive murmurings, however Grandma Jackson is really a wise woman.

“Old Phoenix said, `Out of my way, all you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons and wild animals!…Keep out from under these feet, little bob-wwhites…Keep the big wild hogs out of my path. Don’t let nonne 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, wo uld switch at the brush as if to rouse up any hiding things.”

Jackson’s journey is both literal and figurative. In the story, she is walking a worn path to town, and in her head, instead of absentmindedly thinking, she is journeying through her life. In this, the reader sees the true purpose of Welty’s motif. Despite the fact that Jackson is half-blind and over eighty-years old, she does not see her treacherous path as particularly dangerous. She plods it with the same determination that has characterized the rest of her life. There is no turning back. She is bigger, stronger, faster, and smarter. In Jackson’s mind, the odds are already overcome; she has traveled this journey many times before. She knows her strength, choosing to forget her handicaps:

“At the foot of this hill was a place where a log was laid across the creek.
`Now comes the trial,’ said Phoenix.
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 she was safe on the other said.
`I wasn’t as old as I thought,’ she said.”

Welty reminds the reader of Jackson’s true self by infusing the plot with visual imagery. In her own picture of herself, Jackson is not only an old woman, but also a great hero. However, Welty offers moments, flashes of time, when the reader is jolted back into reality, and realizes Jackson’s true identity:

“A black dog with a lolling tongue came up out of the weeds by the ditch. She was meditating, and not ready, and when he came at her she only hit him a little with her cane. Over she went in the ditch, like a little puff of milkweed.

Down there, her senses drifted away…`Olld woman,’ she said to herself, `that black dog come up out of the weeds to stall you off, and now there he sitting on his fine tail, smiling at you.”

The description, “little puff of milkweed” compares Jackson to a small, pale, fragile flower. Her tumble into the ditch reminds both herself, and the reader, that the journey is not over, but she is not as young as before. Jackson’s attitude suggests that, perhaps, if one forgets their inabilities, their flaws and weaknesses, there is a possibility of achieving great things despite one’s limitations.
Phoenix Jackson has had a long journey through life. As a black woman, her experiences have been more difficult than most. Just as she fearlessly travels to bring her little grandson medicine, so she continues to travel through life. She accepts no help and asks for no favors. Her pride is laughable to some, yet there is a great dignity that she makes no attempt to hide. Her journey is the journey, not only of herself, but also of her family, of her heritage

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