Study Guide

A Worn Path Birds

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Ornithophobes, beware: It's a regular aviary up in this story. Birds are a super common symbol in literature and art. Their meaning can vary depending on the type of bird, but some of the common meanings include life, death, hope, peace, freedom, and religion/spirituality. We go over one of the most prominent bird symbols in the story, the phoenix, on Phoenix's page in the "Characters" section, so we won't double dip on that explanation now, but here's a rundown on some of the other feathered friends and foes in this text.

Early on in her quest, Phoenix encounters a mourning dove (4). While doves in general are used as symbols of peace, love, and spirituality/the Holy Spirit, this particular bird gets its sad name from its song, which sounds like a call of grief. It's a fitting symbol for Phoenix's journey since her trek is filled with love, faith, and sadness.

When you see buzzards (a.k.a. vultures or birds of prey) in literature, you usually know the news ain't good. They are often symbols for death, decay, and destruction, though they can sometimes also be used to symbolize regeneration. Death always hangs in the background of "A Worn Path." Phoenix's grandson is very ill, and Phoenix herself is so old that death may come for her soon as well. When Phoenix comes upon the buzzard after passing through "dead trees" and a "withered cotton field" (16), it's a reminder that death is ever present.

Phoenix isn't afraid of the buzzard, though. Quite the contrary. She stands up to it, sassily demanding to know "Who you watching?" (17). The mythological bird with which Phoenix shares a name also defies death by rising anew from its own ashes, and here, Phoenix the woman demonstrates that she, too, balks at death.

Phoenix encounters bobwhite quail a few times in the story. At one point, she sees them walking about seeming all "dainty and unseen" on the "easy" (29) part of the path. Soon after, though, the quail are dead and stuffed in the hunter's game bag. Bobwhite quail are commonly hunted birds, so it's not exactly shocking that a hunter would have them in his game bag. At the same time, though, within the context of this story, the dead birds cast the hunter in an especially antagonistic light because of how often Phoenix is linked to birds.

In addition to the mention of these specific types of birds, Welty also uses the term "little bird" in her depictions of Phoenix and the grandson (1, 91). For her part, Phoenix interprets a bird flying overhead as an indication of God watching her (51), and there are other smaller mentions of birds in the background and descriptions as well. In other words, keep your eye on the sky are you read.

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