Study Guide

A Worn Path Perseverance

By Eudora Welty

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She carried a thin, small cane made from an umbrella, and with this she kept tapping the frozen earth in front of her. This made a grave and persistent noise in the still air that seemed meditative, like the chirping of a solitary little bird. (1)

Hey, look—the word "persistent" right there in paragraph number one. The first two paragraphs of the story are pretty much straight up description of Phoenix and her initial setting. Throwing in the word "persistent" alongside this makes it clear that we are to associate perseverance with Phoenix's character.

"Out of my way, all you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons and wild animals!… Keep out from under these feet, little bob-whites… Keep the big wild hogs out of my path. Don't let none of those come running my direction. I got a long way." (3)

This quote gives us Phoenix's first words. Here's what strikes us most: The first four sentences that Phoenix speaks in the story are imperative sentences—they give commands, show us who's boss. Phoenix is taking charge because she knows she has a long way to go, and she is not going to let anything stop her. The series of imperative sentences give us the first impression of a woman on a mission.

The path ran up a hill. "Seem like there is chains about my feet time, I get this far," she said, in a voice of argument old people keep to use with themselves. "Something always take a hold of me on this hill—pleads I should stay." (5)

The "voice of argument" mentioned in this quotation suggests internal conflict. Just because persistence is established early as part of Phoenix's character does not mean that carrying on in the face of struggle isn't difficult for her. Phoenix has already traveled far by this point and now she is going uphill. The going is hard. Her body is telling her to stop, so she pleads with herself in order to continue on.

At the foot of this hill was the place where a log was laid across the creek.

"Now comes the trial," said Phoenix. Putting her right foot out, she mounted the log and shut her eyes. Lifting her skirt, leveling her cane fiercely before her like a festival figure in some parade, she began to march across. Then she opened her eyes and she was safe on the other side. (11-12)

The great trial here is simply walking across a creek on a log. Of course, this is difficult for an older person without as much physical strength. And the text likens Phoenix's movement to that of a festival figure. Nevertheless, words like "fiercely" and "march" demonstrate intense determination and make Phoenix's trials important no matter how trivial they may seem to others.

"Glad this not the season for bulls," she said, looking sideways, "and the good Lord made his snakes to curl up and sleep in the winter. A pleasure I don't see no two-headed snake coming around that tree, where it come once. It took a while to get by him, back in the summer." (19)

Charging bulls? Two-headed snakes? Phoenix has had to face such monsters before, but not even the threat of encountering these creatures can keep her from her purpose. She is on alert, nervous and fearful, but Phoenix's determination is stronger than these feelings. The fact that Phoenix knows the habits of these animals also speaks to her dedication. It is clear Phoenix understands the path and the creatures that inhabit it from her faithful and regular journeys along it.

"On your way home?"

"No sir, I going to town."

"Why that's too far! That's as far as I walk when I come out myself, and I get something for my trouble." He patted the stuffed bag he carried, and there hung down a little closed claw. It was one of the bobwhites, with its beak hooked bitterly to show it was dead. "Now you go on home, Granny!"

"I bound to go to town, mister." (41-44)

The hunter points out reasons why Phoenix should give up—the distance she has to travel is too great, and she will make no material profit from traveling that distance. Pshaw. Phoenix could care less. She makes no excuses and plays like a champ.

"Throat never heals, does it?" said the nurse speaking in a loud, sure voice to Old Phoenix […] "Yes. Swallowed lye. When was it?—January—two—three years ago—" (88)

These journeys Phoenix makes have not cured her grandson and probably never will. But just as Phoenix doesn't care about what the hunter has to say, she doesn't care about what the nurse has to say. In the nurse's view, Phoenix's efforts are ineffective and therefore pointless, but in Phoenix's view, giving up is out of the question.

"No, missy, he not dead, he just the same. Every little while his throat begin to close up again, and he not able swallow. He not get his breath. He not able to help himself. So the time come around, and I go on another trip for the soothing-medicine." (89)

Aha—an explanation of Phoenix's motivation at last. So what if her grandson's illness has persisted for years? And so what if it continues to do so for many years to come? If there is anything Phoenix can do to ease his pain, she will do it.

"He suffer and it don't seem to put him back at all." (91)

Okay, so this quote describes Phoenix's grandson, but it readily applies to Phoenix as well. Both characters have the fortitude to endure suffering without giving up.

She lifted her free hand, gave a little nod, turned around, and walked out of the doctor's office. Then her slow step began on the stairs, going down. (100)

The exchange in the doctor's office doesn't take much time at all. Phoenix speaks briefly to the attendant and nurse and gets her grandson's medicine—that's it, and then she's right back out the door to start the long trip home. It's not like she gets a chance to kick back with a cold drink and a cheeseburger. However, she makes no complaint and carries on. This last paragraph circles back to the first one in that it shows Phoenix starting the return home with the same deliberation she has when she sets out for town in the first place.

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