Study Guide

A Worn Path Contrasting Regions

By Eudora Welty

Contrasting Regions

On she went. The woods were deep and still. The sun made the pine needles almost too bright to look at, up where the wind rocked. The cones dropped as light as feathers. (4)

Just a slice of the kind of detailed imagery Welty uses throughout the country portion of the story. There's plenty of danger in the country, but plenty of beauty, too, and the story is intent on pointing out both.

At last she was safe through the fence and risen up out of in the clearing. Big dead trees, like black men with one arm, were standing in the purple stalks of the withered cotton field. There sat a buzzard.

"Who you watching?" (16-17)

Can't you just imagine Phoenix jutting her chin out and giving an I-dare-you-to-make-a-move nod to the buzzard (which is a symbol of death)? Death is all around Phoenix in the setting of the countryside, and death is close by in her life, too, since she has a very ill grandson and she herself is quite old. But she doesn't let the threat intimidate her. Instead, she tells death off, hitches up her sassy pants, and moves on.

"Git on away from here, dog! Look! Look at that dog!" She laughed as if in admiration. "He ain't scared of nobody. He a big black dog." She whispered, "Sic him!" (49)

Here we have another example of Phoenix in a showdown with a threat. She's facing off with the hunter, and she has no qualms with ordering the black dog to attack. It's not clear if "him" means the hunter or his dog, but either way it is a move against the hunter. Phoenix is older than the hunter, she's weaker than the hunter, and she doesn't have gun like the hunter does. She is in the more vulnerable position, but she's going to stand her ground on the path no matter what.

There ahead was Natchez shining. Bells were ringing. She walked on. (58)

This moment sort of feels like the clouds are parting and the angels are singing. Phoenix is not comfortable in the city nor is she empowered in the city, but the city still operates as a beacon for her because it is where she can obtain the medicine she has walked so far to get.

In the paved city it was Christmas time. There were red and green electric lights strung crisscrossed everywhere, and all turned on in the daytime. Old Phoenix would have been lost if she had not distrusted her eyesight and depended on her feet to know where to take her. (59)

There's no time warp between the country and the city—It's the same time of year in both places—and yet there's no mention of Christmas when Phoenix is alone on the Trace. Is the country filled with grinches? Not quite. Christmas decorations and lights cost money and take electricity. We know Phoenix doesn't have the former, and she may very well not have the latter. What reason would Phoenix have to mention Christmas? She's hardly a part of it.

"Please, missy, will you lace up my shoe?" She held up her foot.

"What do you want, Grandma?"

"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. [….]

"Can't lace 'em with a cane," said Phoenix. (61-65)

This is where the transformation from powerful country Phoenix to helpless city Phoenix takes place. Phoenix weathers every single obstacle in the country using her own resources, but almost as soon as she arrives in the city, her resources (her umbrella cane, for instance) are no longer good enough, and she must ask for help.

With her hands on her knees, the old woman waited silent, erect and motionless, just as if she were in armor. (82)

Phoenix is on mega-lockdown, as impenetrable as Fort Knox. Her thoughts boom through the text in the countryside, but here in the doctor's office in the city, her voice goes blank and her body language suggests the need to guard and protect herself in this foreign place.

Then Phoenix was like an old woman begging a dignified forgiveness for waking up frightened in the night. "I never did go to school—I was too old at the Surrender," she said in a soft voice. "I'm an old woman without an education. It was my memory fail me." (87)

We see Phoenix at her weakest right here. She apologizes for her history, which of course is not her fault. As she points out her perceived inadequacies, though, the sassy Phoenix who dominates the Trace is nowhere to be seen.

"All right. The doctor said as long as you came to get it, you could have it," said the nurse. […]

"All right." The nurse was trying to hush her now. She brought her a bottle of medicine. "Charity," she said, making a check mark in her book. (90, 92)

When Phoenix starts to regain her voice and begins to communicate about her grandson, she is shushed. This quote also makes the point that Phoenix is reduced to being an anonymous charity case in the city, while emphasizing the uneven distribution of certain resources between the city and the country. Phoenix has to venture into the city to get medical resources because no one is going to schlep out to the country to ensure that she gets what she needs. How does this exchange impact the way we view the nurse?

She received the nickel and then fished the other nickel out of her pocket and laid it beside the new one. She stared at her palm closely, with her head on one side.

[…] "This is what come to me to do," she said. "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." (98-99)

In the city, most exchanges happen around money. If you want food, you go to the store and pay money. If you want a new coat, you go to the store and pay money. In the country setting that Phoenix is from, though, exchanges likely take the form of bartering between neighbors. To most people living in the city, this windmill is a common trinket from the market, but to Phoenix and her grandson, who are more removed from material culture, it is a remarkable and highly unusual thing.