In its depiction of the journey of an impoverished black woman in Mississippi, “A Worn Path” explores the realities of race and class in the South at a time when slavery was still within living memory. The depiction of race in the story is not simplistic. Rather, through Phoenix’s experiences with other people, Welty shows the complicated ways that blacks and whites interact in the early 1940s South, with single encounters shifting within moments from kindness to menace, helpfulness to command. Symbolically, perhaps unexpectedly, a black dog and a black scarecrow derail Phoenix’s journey, suggesting how the fact of their race disadvantages black people. Meanwhile, a white hunter who at first helps Phoenix to her feet after she’s fallen then points a gun at her, threatening her in an almost casual manner, a reflection of the privilege afforded to white people at that time in the South and the fundamental disregard whites had for the security or comfort of black people. However, at the end of the story, after successfully reaching the city and getting medicine for her sick grandson and gathering together ten cents in the process, Phoenix raises her “free arm” and thinks of the present she will buy her grandson. In this way her own path from slavery to freedom is emphasized, and Phoenix’s grandson becomes a symbol of the possibility of a better future of black people, though his illness suggests that possibility is by no means assured.
Phoenix is described as an incredibly poor woman, and she is acutely aware of the trapping of class. She desires, for example, that her shoes be tied so she has some dignity before entering what seems to be the town hospital. At the same time, Phoenix is not above stealing a bit of money, as when she distracts the hunter and slyly nicks a nickel. After her theft, though, she worries about her vulnerability to punishment as a poor black women, reflecting that she has seen “plenty [guns] go off closer by, in my day, and for less than what I done”. Later, in the hospital, the attendant gives her a nickel as charity, and while standing “stiffly” she “carefully” accepts the coin. From these instances we understand that Phoenix is both proud and clever, thinking highly of herself but not above getting the money and medicine she needs through whatever means she can, while also being aware of the potential debasement and dangers of her position. Money becomes a tool of empowerment for Phoenix, even as the stealing and the charity suggest a separation of classes. That she then uses the money not to buy the bare necessities but rather for a relatively luxurious – and certainly delicate – paper windmill that will show her grandson the wonders of the world suggests her hope of what the future holds and the way that having hope fuels her will to go on, but also the fragility of achieving those hopes in a world of unyielding racial and class divisions.
Race and Class ThemeTracker
Race and Class 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.”
"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 gave another laugh, filling the whole landscape. "I know you old colored people! Wouldn't miss going to town to see Santa Claus!"
“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.”
"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.
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.”
“This is what come to me to do…I going to the store and buy my child a little windmill they sells, made out of paper. He going to find it hard to believe there such a thing in the world.”
She lifted her free hand, gave a little nod, turned around…Then her slow step began on the stairs, going down.