Southern Gothic, Quest
The Southern gothic genre is usually defined broadly as literature set in the South, concerned with social and cultural issues of the South, and featuring supernatural, grotesque, and/or morbid elements. Seems like a good fit for this tale, right?
If Welty were still alive, she'd have some serious beef with us for even mentioning this genre in our analysis of her story. She vehemently rejected the Southern gothic label, even famously protesting in an interview with Alice Walker, "They better not call me that!" Despite her objections, critics still regularly place Welty in the Southern gothic category alongside writers such as William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. So we'll just explore why.
For "A Worn Path," the Southern part is easy. The story is set in Mississippi and the vivid descriptions of the environment as well as the dialect entrench us firmly in the Southern setting. But the story is not just set in the South; it's about the South, dealing with such issues as the aftermath of slavery.
It is very evident when Phoenix enters the doctor's office that she is a relic from a different era—she is dressed differently, she is not involved in the major popular holiday going on around her, she can't participate in economic exchanges, and she can't read. She even explains that she can't read because she was too old at the end of the Civil War to go to school.
Phoenix is a representation of the lack of opportunities that were available to black women even after emancipation and the continued ripples of poverty, racism, and marginalization spreading well into the 20th century from the era of slavery.
As for the gothic part, there's plenty of that, too. The border between reality and imagination is hazy; larger-than-life beasts like rampaging black dogs and two-headed snakes abound, and life and death exist side-by-side with a slippery boundary between them.
For instance, when Phoenix thinks she encounters a ghost, she asks it, "who be you the ghost of? For I have heard of nary death close by" (23). Phoenix does not question the existence of ghosts, but rather she is simply perplexed by the ghost's identity because she has not heard of anyone dying recently. Ghosts are gothic at its finest, and while the one Phoenix spots turns out to be just an old scarecrow, the story's readiness to accept supernatural existence is clear.
Speaking of ghosts, though, we don't want the ghost of Welty to come back and haunt us, so perhaps she would be happier if we called her story a quest because it is that, too. It has all the hallmarks of a quest—things like a long journey, and a hero who undergoes emotional and physical tests and trials. As far as genres go, literature never has to be just one thing or another. It can be a mix. Maybe Welty would get a kick out of us inventing a term just for her. Perhaps a combo like SoGo Quest or Questernic? Yeah, maybe not…