Let's set the scene: You've just taken your seat at a movie theater and you're watching the coming attractions. You see one about a hero on an epic hero facing grueling terrain, battling a ghost, staring down the barrel of a gun, and army-crawling under barbed-wire fence. This hero, Phoenix Jackson, is one fierce lady, determined to come through her ordeal successfully no matter what comes her way. Sounds cool, right? Like a good gig for Angelina Jolie or Scarlett Johansson?
This could very well be a movie trailer for Eudora Welty's 1941 O. Henry Award winning short story "A Worn Path." Well, with a few twists. For one thing, Phoenix is old—like, really old. And the journey is not exactly an Odysseus voyage to distant lands, but rather a walk from her home in the country to town where she needs to get medicine for her grandson.
So that grueling terrain? It's some hills, fields, and a creek. And that ghost? Yeah, it's just a scarecrow. Phoenix really does find herself staring down the barrel of a gun, though, thanks to a hunter who puts one right in her face. And she also maneuvers under barbed-wire fencing, though it probably doesn't look quite like an army crawl. Nevertheless, this short story uses style, tone, and images to present Phoenix's journey as on par with the epics of Aeneas, Odysseus, and Gilgamesh. It's big screen action tucked into a tiny package.
While "A Worn Path" might seem unusual when compared to other hero narratives, the subject matter is pretty standard fare for Welty. Having lived and worked in Mississippi for most of her life, Welty was fascinated with the region and its people. She often got story material from photographs and conversations, fleshing out fictional tales from the real lives of those she observed. "A Worn Path" is an example of this method.
Welty said she was inspired to write Phoenix's story after observing an old woman walking along the horizon in the Mississippi countryside. Drawn to the way the woman moved with a strong sense of purpose, Welty began thinking about what kind of serious errand this woman might be on. Bam—just like that, she dreamt up "A Worn Path."
Curious now? We thought so. So keep reading.
At first blush, this story might seem hard to get into. Sure, we all love grandmas—they knit us blankets and make us cookies—but how much can we really relate to them? And Phoenix might seem especially un-relatable because she is not just old, but also from a different time. Complicating things further is the fact that she is a social outsider in pretty much every way possible. As an extremely poor black woman living in the Jim Crow South, Phoenix is about as far to the periphery of society as a person can get.
Even though most of us have probably never had to deal with hardships as trying as Phoenix's, there are some things about her tale that might remind us of our own lives. Many of us have probably felt alone or beaten down at some point or another, so we have that in common with Phoenix. Many of us also might know what it's like to want to reach a goal so badly that nothing will stop us. Phoenix definitely knows what that feels like. And many of us probably have loved ones we would sacrifice anything for, which is exactly how Phoenix feels about her grandson.
In short, even if we are vastly different than someone, there are some universal struggles and emotions we can all say been there to. By incorporating these universal elements into Phoenix's story, "A Worn Path" makes it possible for us to see the world from the perspective of someone who might appear totally foreign at first glance. And being able to step into someone else's shoes and explore life from that vantage point are among the coolest things about reading good literature.
All About That Eudora Welty
The Eudora Welty Foundation has all you ever wanted to know about Ms. Welty's life, career, writing, photography, and family and friends.
"A Worn Path"
Here's a link to the text of the story. It was originally published in the print magazine version of The Atlantic—you know, because they didn't have the Internet in the 1940s.
Quotable Eudora Welty
Looking for a good quote to post on your social media of choice? Why not check out some of Welty's?
Should you ever need to do a research paper on "A Worn Path," this website has a wealth of links to credible sources about Welty and the story.
The New York Times Obituary of Eudora Welty
The NYT is famous for their insightful obituaries. This one on Welty is full of interesting details about her work, inspiration, and biographical details of her life.
An Interview with the Paris Review
The Paris Review is well-esteemed for their chats with literary bigwigs, and their chat with Welty doesn't disappoint. If you're intrigued by her craft, there's loads for you here.
If you long for those days when people read stories aloud to you before bed, here's your chance to indulge in some nostalgia and listen to the full text.
Eudora Welty Circa 1941
This is what Eudora Welty looked like around the time she wrote and published "A Worn Path."
The Natchez Trace
The Natchez Trace has been so frequently traveled throughout history that parts of it are actually sunken.
A Photo of Phoenix
Okay, this isn't Phoenix, but this photograph by Welty often pops up on websites about "A Worn Path" because people seem to think that this woman captures what Welty had in mind for Phoenix.