Study Guide

A Worn Path Old Age

By Eudora Welty

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Old Age

She was very old and small and she walked slowly in the dark pine shadows, moving a little from side to side in her steps, with the balanced heaviness and lightness of a pendulum in a grandfather clock. (1)

There is no mistaking that Phoenix is old. It's the first adjective used to describe her and then it's repeated again two sentences later.

Her eyes were blue with age. (2)

Medical lesson of the day: Eyes lose pigment as people age, leaving most super old people with grey or blue eyes.

Her skin had a pattern all its own of numberless branching wrinkles and as though a whole little tree stood in the middle of her forehead, but a golden color ran underneath, and the two knobs of her cheeks were illumined by a yellow burning under the dark. Under the red rag her hair came down on her neck in the frailest of ringlets, still black, and with an odor like copper. (2)

Like her eyes, Phoenix's skin shows signs of wear, namely wrinkles. Her wrinkles aren't sending her running to the plastic surgeon, though. Instead they are likened to a tree (check out what we've got to say about trees in the "Symbols" section) and are blazing gold, a valuable color linked to wealth and life.

"I wasn't as old as I thought," she said. (13)

Age is just a number, yo. Phoenix vacillates between moments when she considers herself to be old as dirt and moments in which she acknowledges that she still has a lot of life in her.

There she had to creep and crawl, spreading her knees and stretching her fingers like a baby trying to climb the steps. But she talked loudly to herself: she could not let her dress be torn now, so late in the day […]. (15)

This is one of those moments with a blurry distinction between young and old. In the space of two sentences, Phoenix's movements are compared to those of a baby, but at the same time we are told that it is late in the day, a reminder that it is late in Phoenix's life, oo.

"I ought to be shut up for good," she said with laughter. "My senses is gone. I too old. I the oldest people I ever know. Dance, old scarecrow," she said, "while I dancing with you." (20)

Oh, Phoenix—one second you're telling us you're not as old as you thought, and the next you're telling us you're too old. What's the deal, yo? Though Phoenix is pointing out her extremely advanced age, she's making a joke about it. Later on in the story, we hear some sadness from Phoenix about her age, but here she is lighthearted. Why do you think she can have both perspectives on aging?

"Nobody know who made this well, for it was here when I was born." (30)

Even though Phoenix is really ancient, there are things in the world older than her. But as she points out in another passage quoted above, she doesn't know anyone who is older than her. Do you think that's a lonely position to be in or an empowering position to be in? Perhaps a little of both?

"I know you old colored people! Wouldn't miss going to town to see Santa Claus!" (45)

This dimwitted comment comes from the hunter. We know the hunter is a bad dude, and here we have an example of his bad dudeness in action. This comment is ageist because it clumps all people of a certain age into one over-generalized grouping. It's also infantilizing. The young and the old do have things in common, but one of those things is not a shared interest in sitting in Santa's lap. While we're at it, we should probably mention this comment is racist to boot.

"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. My little grandson, he is just the same, and I forgot it in the coming." (87)

Here we have pretty much the only moment in which Phoenix's attitude toward her age is truly defeatist. Age, she says, limited her chance for an education, and it continues to limit her abilities, as evidenced in her loss of memory and inability to maintain her confidence and wits in the city.

"He going to last. He wear a little patch-quilt and peep out, holding his mouth open like a little bird. I remembers so plain now. I not going to forget him again, no, the whole enduring time. I could tell him from all the others in creation." (91)

The wording here connects both Phoenix and her grandson to immortality with phrases like "the whole enduring time" and "in creation." This second phrase even reminds us of the creation, like at the beginning of the Bible when the world was first made. Going back all the way to the start of time is a surefire way to raise the issue of transcending the boundaries of time.

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