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.
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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.

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Race and Class ThemeTracker

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Race and Class Quotes in A Worn Path

Below you will find the important quotes in A Worn Path related to the theme of Race and Class.
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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"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.

“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. 

"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."  

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. 

“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.”

Related Characters: Phoenix Jackson (speaker), Grandson
Related Symbols: The Paper Windmill
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:
Phoenix has received the medicine and the attendant has offered her a nickel, an act of charity in keeping with the Christmas season. Phoenix accepts the money and resolves to buy her grandson a paper windmill, reflecting that he won't be able to "believe there such a thing in the world." Phoenix's plan reveals her selflessness and generosity, and undercuts any suspicions the reader might have developed (particular during the hunter's nickel scene) that Phoenix was partly out for her own material gain. Not only her decision to buy the windmill, but the entire trip to town in the first place has been in service only of her grandson. Despite her absolute poverty, she never considers putting herself above him. Phoenix's anticipation at her grandson's shock upon receiving the windmill is similarly moving, highlighting the scarcity of their lives by claiming that such a simple, fragile object will bring him such intense joy. 

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.