A Worn Path

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Perseverance and Power Theme Analysis

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The story’s title, “A Worn Path”, first and most obviously refers to the path Phoenix has walked many times before to Natchez to get medicine for her sick grandson. But the title also alludes to the idea of life – and Phoenix’s life in particular – as a journey that is made by repeated passage through and endurance of the world around her, and suggests that such endurance has a slow power that will ultimately leave behind a mark or “path” through that world.

As she walks to Natchez, Phoenix must contend with unequal dynamics of power that are inherently tied to her age, her race, and her class. And yet Phoenix endures. Though she falls in a ditch and has to be rescued by the white hunter, she refuses his urgings to turn back and go home. In fact, Phoenix does more than endure. Her interactions suggest that she has learned how to use her supposedly helpless position in her own favor. She asks the hunter to save her from a dog and manages to steal his nickel. She plays into the preconceptions that the attendant and nurse in the hospital hold about her, and receives free medicine and another nickel. The duality of Phoenix’s inner fortitude and social weakness—which becomes a type of power—occur throughout the story. 

Phoenix’s journey on this “worn path”, filled with hardship as it is, is one that she has completed repeatedly, “like clockwork.” That she not only obtains the medicine but also enough money to buy her grandson a present – and has refused to become so beaten down by a hard life that she still wants to show her grandson the wonder of the world through that present – shows how perseverance can give power even to those in positions of weakness. That Phoenix’s triumph might seem small is no mark against it, and in fact might be taken as an argument that it is these “small”, everyday triumphs, that might eventually carve the “worn path” that brings Phoenix, and perhaps the blacks of the post-slavery South in general, out of their powerlessness.  

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Perseverance and Power Quotes in A Worn Path

Below you will find the important quotes in A Worn Path related to the theme of Perseverance and Power.
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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“Thorns, you doing your appointed work. Never want to let folks pass, no sir. Old eyes thought you was a pretty little green bush.”

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

As Phoenix walks down the hill, her dress snags against a bushel of thorns. She carefully untangles her dress while addressing the thorns, telling them they are doing their "appointed work" by not letting "folks pass." This passage highlights Phoenix's affectionate, harmonious relationship to nature, even when it causes her difficulty. Although the thorns make it hard for her to walk, Phoenix acknowledges that they are simply doing what thorns are supposed to do, an observation that points to the belief that everything in the world was created by God for a reason.

The religious overtones are emphasized by the symbolic significance of thorns within Christianity, originating in the crown of thorns Jesus was forced to wear at his crucifixion. This connection draws parallels between the hardship Phoenix must endure and the suffering of Christ. Indeed, throughout the story Phoenix exhibits the Christ-like qualities of humility, perseverance, and dignity under pressure. It is only through her humble and dignified perseverance that she is able to gradually make a path for herself, both metaphorically and in the literal sense of navigating the natural landscape. 

“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. 

“This the easy place. This the easy going.”

Related Characters: Phoenix Jackson (speaker)
Page Number: 144
Explanation and Analysis:

Phoenix has encountered a scarecrow, at first mistaking it for a ghost. Once she realizes her mistake, she laughs and dances with the scarecrow before continuing on her way. Then she reaches the wagon trail, which is pleasant and easier to walk over. She tells herself to "walk pretty," as this is the easy part of her route. This moment in the story highlights the idea that difficult experiences will eventually give way to happiness and ease, a notion that again has religious overtones, pointing to the concept of heaven. However, as will soon be revealed, Phoenix is mistaken in assuming that this part of her journey will be less arduous. Although the path is flat, the presence of white people turns out to be much more of a threat than the natural landscape.

"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 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.

“I’d give you a dime if I had any money with me. But you take my advice and stay home, and nothing will happen to you.”

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

Impressed by Phoenix's calm reaction to the gun being pointed at her, the hunter has commented that she must be a hundred years old and afraid of nothing. He claims he would give her money if he had some, a statement that the hunter intends to be a lie but is in fact, unbeknownst to him, the truth. Although he doesn't know it, the hunter has "given" Phoenix money––the nickel she stole after it fell from his pocket. This strange convergence of truth and lies highlights the complexity of relations between white and black people in the Jim Crow South, indicating that nothing is what it seems.

Having violently frightened Phoenix, the hunter pretends to be generous and compassionate; yet both Phoenix and the reader know he is lying about not having any money. Moreover, the hunter's "advice" that Phoenix stay home might at first sound well-intentioned, but the broader context of their encounter reveals this to be a threat. Both characters have acknowledged that Phoenix could be killed simply for walking along the path into town. By encouraging her to stay at home, the hunter is effectively warning her not to challenge the violent system of white supremacy that governs Phoenix's life. 

She entered a door, and there she saw nailed up on the wall the document that had been stamped with the gold seal and framed in the gold frame, which matched the dream that was hung up in her head.

Related Characters: Phoenix Jackson
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:

Phoenix has arrived at the doctor's office, where she encounters a document (probably the doctor's diploma) with a gold seal in a gold frame "which matched the dream that was hung up in her head." This detail provides both a sobering and uplifting perspective on Phoenix's life. On one level, it is a tragic example of all the opportunities that have not been available to Phoenix. The fact that Phoenix's "dream" is described in such lyrical terms––especially in the midst of a rather straightforward narrative––emphasizes the power of Phoenix's hope and imagination. At the same time, this passage may also refer to Phoenix's memory of the doctor's office and highlight the impressive fact that it is Phoenix's excellent memory that allows her to navigate the trip to town in spite of her poor eyesight. 

“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. 

“We is the only two left in the world. He suffer and it don’t seem to put him back at all…He going to last…I could tell him from all the others in creation.”

Related Characters: Phoenix Jackson (speaker), Grandson
Related Symbols: Phoenix
Page Number: 148
Explanation and Analysis:

The nurse has explained to the attendant that Phoenix comes to get medicine for her grandson, who swallowed lye when he was young and still suffers immensely as a result. While the nurse seems pessimistic about the boy's health, Phoenix speaks about him with a deep sense of faith and love. It is clear from Phoenix's words that her grandson represents not just one individual case, but the whole future of black people in America. Whereas the nurse's view points to the immense difficulty and hardship that Phoenix's grandson experiences, Phoenix remains convinced that there is something special about her grandson that will ensure he endures ("He going to last"). 

Indeed, the character of the grandson can be seen as embodying the symbol of the phoenix, a view emphasized by Phoenix's comment that he sits at home in a quilt "holding his mouth open like a little bird." Through his misfortune and illness, the grandson exists in a state near to death; however, his grandmother maintains that, like the phoenix, he will ultimately survive and flourish. 

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.