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.
Perseverance and Power ThemeTracker
Perseverance and Power Quotes in A Worn Path
“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.”
“Thorns, you doing your appointed work. Never want to let folks pass, no sir. Old eyes thought you was a pretty little green bush.”
“Now comes the trial.”
“This the easy place. This the easy going.”
"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!"
“He ain’t scared of nobody. He a big black dog.”
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."
“No, sir, I seen plenty go off closer by, in my day, and for less than what I done.”
“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.”
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.
“Here I be,” she said. There was a fixed and ceremonial stiffness over her body.
“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.”
She lifted her free hand, gave a little nod, turned around…Then her slow step began on the stairs, going down.