A Worn Path

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Themes and Colors
Race and Class Theme Icon
Perseverance and Power Theme Icon
Love Theme Icon
Nature and City Theme Icon
Human Dignity Theme Icon
Christian Overtones Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Worn Path, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Human Dignity Theme Icon

By persevering, by refusing to yield to the inequality forced upon her by her age, race, and class, by demonstrating calm, smarts, and willpower in the face of all obstacles, Phoenix exemplifies a remarkable degree of dignity. Phoenix never appears afraid or threatened, even when, most dramatically, the hunter aims his gun directly at her. Her sense of dignity is evident also when she insists on her shoes being tied, or in the “stiff” and “careful” way she accepts the charity of a nickel given to her. She neither rails against injustice nor stoops in the face of condescension. She proceeds always towards her goal, never losing faith that what she wants is something she deserves, and lets no obstacle derail her. 

Phoenix and her journey also offer those she meets the opportunity to respond with the same dignity that she displays, and to do so despite the complicated power dynamics of racial and class divisions in the South. However, not everyone takes the opportunity to treat her with dignity, or even when they do that dignity is complicated by their other behavior. The hunter helps Phoenix but then threatens her, if jokingly, reminding her of the violence done to black people both during slavery and of the lynchings that were common in the post-Slavery South. The hospital attendant gives her a nickel but condescends to her. The woman on the street ties her shoes, but not without issuing a command of her own. In this way the story portrays the ways that common human dignity can both overcome and then, in turn, be by overcome by the vicious divisions of race and class.

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Human Dignity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Human Dignity appears in each chapter of A Worn Path. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Human Dignity Quotes in A Worn Path

Below you will find the important quotes in A Worn Path related to the theme of Human Dignity.
A Worn Path Quotes

“Seems like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far…Something always takes a hold of me on this hill—pleads I should stay.”

Related Characters: Phoenix Jackson (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Worn Path
Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:

The story opens by introducing Phoenix, an elderly black woman wearing a red rag and unlaced shoes that keep almost tripping her up. Occasionally, she has to shoo animals away, but despite the difficulty of the journey, she perseveres. In this passage, Phoenix reflects that it feels like there are chains on her feet, but that there is nonetheless something about the hill that "pleads" for her to keep going (or "stay" on the path). This point emphasizes the extent to which Phoenix's life is filled with difficulty, but also with a sense of purpose. To some degree, this purpose emerges from Phoenix's love for her grandson. At the same time, Phoenix is also motivated by an internal will to persevere despite the hardship she encounters. 

The fact that Phoenix describes "chains about my feet" reminds the reader that she was born before the abolition of slavery. Now, the memory of slavery haunts Phoenix and the world in which she lives, and is sometimes so strong that it has a physical effect on her. During the 1940s (as in the present), many white people were eager to dismiss slavery as something that happened a long time ago, with little bearing on the present. However, Phoenix's story highlights the way in which the legacy of slavery still has a major impact on the world, particularly in the way African Americans are still held back and oppressed by a racist society. 

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“Now comes the trial.”

Related Characters: Phoenix Jackson (speaker)
Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:

Phoenix has disentangled herself from the thorns, but is then faced with the additional challenge of walking along a log that has fallen over the creek at the bottom of the hill. As she prepares to walk over it, she remarks: "Now comes the trial." Once again, the story elevates Phoenix's simple interactions with the natural landscape into obstacles with a much greater significance. Phoenix's use of the word "trial" again links her experience to that of Christ, and the very fact that she is speaking aloud suggests she does not consider herself alone on her journey. Phoenix's comments also highlight the fact that she has walked on the path many times before and thus knows the challenges that lie along the way. 

"Why, that's too far! That's as far as I walk when I come out myself, and I get something for my trouble." He patted the stuffed bag he carried, and there hung down a little closed claw. It was one of the bob-whites, with its beak hooked bitterly to show it was dead. "Now you go on home, Granny!"

Related Characters: Hunter (speaker), Phoenix Jackson
Page Number: 145
Explanation and Analysis:

Phoenix has fallen into a ditch and been helped to her feet by a young white hunter. When he asks her where she's from, she explains that she lives "away back yonder," further than can be seen from where they are standing. The hunter replies that Phoenix has travelled "too far," and urges her to return home. He mentions that he also travels a long way, but at least gets the spoils of hunting for his trouble. This exchange reveals how the hunter's surface-level friendliness masks far more sinister sentiments. His use of the term "Granny" may appear familiar and affectionate, but is in fact patronizing and reveals the hunter's sense of entitlement. This notion is confirmed by the fact that he feels able to tell Phoenix what to do. 

The threatening side of the hunter's character is also symbolized by the dead animal in his bag. The "little closed claw" and "beak hooked bitterly" reveal the violent power the hunter has over more vulnerable beings, whether animals or Phoenix herself. While the hunter may appear pleasant and kind on the surface, his presence in fact has the potential to be dominating and tyrannical. As a young white man, he has total control over the situation, including the power of life and death.  

He gave another laugh, filling the whole landscape. "I know you old colored people! Wouldn't miss going to town to see Santa Claus!"

Related Characters: Hunter (speaker), Phoenix Jackson
Page Number: 145
Explanation and Analysis:

Having been told by the hunter to go home, Phoenix insists that she must go into town because "the time come around." In response, the hunter laughs and says he knows "old colored people" won't miss a chance to go and "see Santa Claus." The hunter's comments exemplify his patronizing and demeaning attitude toward Phoenix and other black people. His claim to "know" that Phoenix is going to see Santa Claus is both mistaken and belittling, as it likens elderly black people to children. The fact that Phoenix doesn't correct him also shows the power the hunter has over her, a power she is forced to accept. Indeed, this power is symbolized by the way that the hunter's laughter is described as "filling the whole landscape," emphasizing his dominance over the region.

“He ain’t scared of nobody. He a big black dog.”

Related Characters: Phoenix Jackson (speaker), Hunter
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:

As the hunter and Phoenix are talking, she has noticed a nickel fall out of his pocket onto the ground. She attempts to distract the hunter by pointing to the dog, laughing and saying "he ain't scared of nobody." This effort to distract the hunter so she can steal the nickel is cunning, and reveals that Phoenix strategically uses her own vulnerability to manipulate the hunter. Although she pretends to want the hunter's protection from the dog, in reality there is a parallel between Phoenix herself and the animal. Both "ain't scared of nobody," despite the very real threat that people like the hunter pose to them. This connection suggests that fear is a matter of attitude and endurance; no matter one's vulnerability, it is always possible to choose not to be afraid. 

Phoenix heard the dogs fighting, and heard the man running and throwing sticks. She even heard a gunshot. But she was slowly bending forward by that time, further and further forward, the lids stretched down over her eyes, as if she were doing this in her sleep. Her chin was lowered almost to her knees. The yellow palm of her hand came out from the fold of her apron. Her 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. Then she slowly straightened up, she stood erect, and the nickel was in her apron pocket. A bird flew by. Her lips moved. "God watching me the whole time. I come to stealing."

Related Characters: Phoenix Jackson (speaker), Hunter
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:

Phoenix has distracted the hunter by encouraging him to set his own dog loose on the stray black dog that made her fall into a ditch. While the dogs fight, Phoenix slowly but skillfully picks up the nickel from the ground and puts it in her pocket. As soon as this is done, she notices a bird fly by, and acknowledges that God is watching her and has seen that she has been reduced to stealing. This passage reveals the complex ways in which Phoenix is forced to navigate the world in order to survive. Her skill in distracting the hunter from the nickel suggests that it is perhaps not the first time she has stolen something, and also that she is accustomed to being watched closely. 

Although Phoenix appears to feel guilty about the fact that God has seen her take the nickel, the actions of the hunter highlight the moral ambiguity of the situation. The hunter's arrogant dominance and Phoenix's frailty and poverty point to the vast injustice of the society in which they live. Meanwhile, the larger setting of the story--in the middle of a rural landscape filled with nonhuman animals--indicates that Phoenix's actions are a matter of survival more than morality. Like the plants and animals along the path, Phoenix must do what she can to get by in a treacherous world. Phoenix's statement that God is watching her "the whole time" indicates that God sees her steal, but also understands the circumstances which led her to commit this act. 

“No, sir, I seen plenty go off closer by, in my day, and for less than what I done.”

Related Characters: Phoenix Jackson (speaker), Hunter
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:

The hunter has successfully scared off the dog, and when he returns he laughs and points his gun at Phoenix. She stands very still, but when the hunter asks if she's scared, she says that she isn't; she's seen plenty of guns go off "for less than what I done." Phoenix's stoic courage during this moment is again almost Christ-like, and confirms the parallel between her and the dog who "ain't scared of nobody." Although the hunter displays his absolute power over Phoenix by pointing the gun at her, by reacting in such a dignified manner Phoenix asserts herself as the more powerful and righteous person in their exchange. 

Phoenix's comment that she has seen plenty of guns go off "for less than what I done" contains multiple levels of meaning. It is possible that Phoenix thinks that the hunter has seen her steal the money, and is thus commenting that she has seen black people killed for stealing less than a nickel. However, her statement can also be interpreted more broadly. During the Jim Crow era, the legal system and culture of the South conspired to criminalize black people simply for existing, and black people were regularly violently attacked and killed for doing nothing at all. Phoenix is evidently accustomed to this kind of undeserved, hateful violence, which helps explain her (seemingly) casual reaction to the hunter's gun.

"See my shoe," said Phoenix. "Do all right for out in the country, but wouldn't look right to go in a big building." "Stand still then, Grandma," said the lady. She put her packages down on the sidewalk beside her and laced and tied both shoes tightly.

Related Characters: Phoenix Jackson (speaker), Woman
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:

Phoenix has arrived in the town, which is decorated for Christmas. She encounters a lady carrying presents who smells like "the red roses in hot summer," and Phoenix asks her to please tie up her shoe. In this passage, Phoenix explains that her untied shoes "do all right for out in the country," but now that she is in town she needs them to be done up. This scene provides another interesting twist in the depiction of race and class relations. Although the lady's race is not specified, she is probably white and certainly more affluent than Phoenix, as evidenced by the fact that she is wearing perfume and carrying an armful of wrapped presents. 

Despite the imbalance in their racial and class backgrounds, Phoenix does not hesitate in asking the woman to tie her shoe, again revealing her fearlessness and commitment to her own dignity. The reversal in the power relations between the two women recalls Mary Magdalene washing the feet of Jesus, or Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, although in the latter instance it would be not Phoenix who represents Jesus, but the unnamed lady. However, unlike Phoenix, the lady does not exhibit Christlike patience and humility, but rather brusquely instructs: "Stand still then, Grandma."  

“Here I be,” she said. There was a fixed and ceremonial stiffness over her body.

Related Characters: Phoenix Jackson (speaker)
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:

Having arrived in town and stepped into the doctor's office, Phoenix proudly announces, "Here I be." The "fixed and ceremonial stiffness" with which she stands emphasizes that this is a moment of triumph for Phoenix. Despite being a seemingly ordinary errand, Phoenix's journey into town for her grandson's medicine is elevated in the story to the status of a treacherous, heroic journey. Although no one at the doctor's office acknowledges her triumph, this seems to matter little to Phoenix, who takes it upon herself to quietly assert the significance of the moment.

Phoenix's words in particular highlight how meaningful her actions are, especially for an old black woman in the Jim Crow South. As the encounter with the hunter revealed, Phoenix's very existence (let alone her fearlessness, perseverance, and dignity) is radical, given the time and place in which she lives. By announcing "Here I be," Phoenix subtly acknowledges and honors the importance of her own existence. 

She lifted her free hand, gave a little nod, turned around…Then her slow step began on the stairs, going down.

Related Characters: Phoenix Jackson
Related Symbols: The Worn Path, The Paper Windmill
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

Phoenix has resolved to buy her grandson a paper windmill, announcing that she will hold it in her hand for him to see as she returns home. In the final sentences of the novel, she lifts her "free hand" to indicate this plan, and slowly begins her walk to buy the windmill and, ultimately, to return home. The ending of the story, rather than bringing any firm resolution, emphasizes the perpetual struggle of Phoenix's life. Having finally completed the long, arduous trip into town, only moments later Phoenix is faced by the prospect of journeying home again. However, by raising "her free hand," Phoenix demonstrates her ability to overcome this hardship and retain the ability to remain dignified, courageous, and free.