The Natchez Trace and Natchez, Mississippi; Christmastime in the late 1930s/early 1940s
For a scenic stroll along a path that was once used by Native Americans, explorers, workers, traders, famous historical figures, and vagabonds of all kind, lace up your sneakers and check out the Natchez Trace.
The Trace extends from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee, and it has played a role in American history for thousands of years. In addition to being a hunting and trading route, the Trace was an avenue for the slave trade, providing a path to channel slaves from other parts of the country to the Forks in the Road slave market.
The descriptions of the Trace in the story are pretty extensive, and the atmosphere is variously portrayed as beautiful, enchanting, dangerous, and grueling. Phoenix's voice is a constant presence in these descriptions, helping us imagine exactly what the terrain is like at different points along the path, what bodies of water she passes, what kind of plants and animals she encounters, where there are fences, where there are cabins, and where you need to be careful not to get eaten by an alligator or charged by a bull. This gives a very strong sense of place, intimately linking Phoenix to the Trace and the history it has seen.
Natchez, named for the Native American tribe who lived in the area, brags about being the oldest city on the Mississippi River and is located about ninety miles from the state capital of Jackson. When "A Worn Path" was written, about fifteen thousand people lived in the city—so it's not huge—but compared to the isolation it seems Phoenix faces in the country, Natchez would be a booming metropolis to her.
Natchez also has a long history of tumultuous race relations, slave revolts, and racial violence, the vestiges of which are evident in the hardships and disempowerment Phoenix continues to face in the story.
That said, the city operates like a mecca for Phoenix. When she first spots Natchez from the path, bells ring and the city shines. If the story had a soundtrack, this is where the trumpets would be blaring. There is a sense of solemnity, too, when Phoenix mounts the "tower of steps" (66) up to the clinic, which is adorned with a very important document stamped and framed in gold. In these ways, the city is a place of reverence and awe.
At the same time, though, Natchez is also a place where Phoenix is extremely uncomfortable and clearly an outsider. She has to alter her physical appearance by requesting that her shoes be laced, a seemingly small adjustment but nevertheless an indication that her identity must be stifled or changed to enter the city.
She is also stricken silent (for more on the significance of her losing her voice, check out the "Point of View" section), and is no longer the confident and capable woman we see on the path. Instead she "becomes like an old woman begging a dignified forgiveness" (87) for her age and her lack of education. Bummer. The briefer and more sterile setting descriptions, as well as the change in Phoenix's previously strong voice, mark her alienation in the city environment.
In short, much as Phoenix needs to come to Natchez in order to get her grandson's medicine, it isn't a place she belongs. Metaphorically, this conveys that in order for her family to survive, Phoenix must accept alienation. Again we are reminded how unfriendly this time and place is to a poor black woman.
The first line of the story tells us it is December, but there is no mention of Christmas until Phoenix gets to the city and the text announces, "In the paved city it was Christmas time" (59). To be clear, this is not a Christmas story in the way Rudolph or The Grinch are Christmas stories. "A Worn Path" does not have to be set at Christmastime, but the choice to set it then allows some of the cultural associations we have with Christmas to add to the themes, symbols, and characters of the story, which enhances the story's meaning.
Literary critics love to compare questing heroes to Christ. Like Christ, these heroes wander long and far, they are tested, they make tremendous personal sacrifices, and they often save people who depend upon them. While Phoenix may seem a strange figure to lump in with Christ-like heroes, she does have all these qualities. What better way to highlight those aspects of her character than to set her story around the celebrated time of the birth of Christ?
Bonus similarity between Phoenix Jackson and Christ: Christ is known for his resurrection, a.k.a. rising from the dead. In the "Characters" section, we talk about how the mythological creature for which Phoenix is named also bucks death, rising to new life from its own ashes.
We know we've been going on about Christmas for a bit—we're about at that point where you might as well throw some ugly holiday sweaters on us and call us the Griswolds—but hang in there for just one more yuletide observation, and we'll put the tinsel and eggnog down.
Phoenix is clearly set apart from the mainstream and commercial aspects of Christmas. The hunter is the one to bring up Santa Claus, for instance, and decorations and gifts only come up when Phoenix arrives in the city. In fact, Phoenix herself never mentions the Christmas holiday at all.
A lot of times, holidays can be seen as signs of cultural or social unity, which means people celebrate them the same way or at least in similar ways, showing that they are part of a larger group. By setting Phoenix apart from these mainstream aspects of the holiday, though, the story emphasizes that Phoenix, a poor black woman from a remote rural home, lives in a world totally separate from the white, urban, economically-comfortable society that celebrates the commercial Christmas. So the story uses the Christmas setting to show how Phoenix doesn't really fit into society. Ingenious, huh?