Study Guide

A Worn Path Race

By Eudora Welty

Race

Far out in the country there was an old N**** woman with her head tied in a red rag, coming along a path through the pinewoods. (1)

"N****" did not take on the negative connotation it has today until the 1960s. When "A Worn Path" was written, this was a term that African Americans would use to describe themselves without the intention of offending. "N****" is the second adjective the story gives us about Phoenix, which suggests it's really important that we know that detail. (Here's the essay that many scholars site as the work that began the discussion about the inappropriateness of using the term "N****").

"Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far," she said […]. (5)

Phoenix does have a voice of confidence, command, and determination at several points along the Trace, but there are also several images of slavery and imprisonment in the early paragraphs of the story that recall the path's connection to slavery. The chains mentioned in this quotation are one example. Others include the whip (3) and Phoenix's dress with the dark stripes (2).

Big dead trees, like black men with one arm, were standing in the purple stalks of the withered cotton field. (16)

The cotton is dead because it's winter—that's what is literally going on here. But the image of disfigured black men standing in a field of death powerfully evokes the horror of slavery that transpired on that ground.

A white man finally came along and found her—a hunter, a young man, with his dog on a chain. (34)

Of the four characters Phoenix meets, the hunter is the only one who is described by his race. Why do you think the story clearly identifies race in his description but not in the others'?

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

First, the hunter lumps all "old colored people" into one category as if they're all the same, a classic sign of stereotyping, and then he claims to "know" them. The hunter could not possibly look more ignorant. He understands absolutely nothing about Phoenix or her real purpose which is crystal clear as he dismisses her like he would a silly child.

"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!"

"Watch me get rid of that cur," said the man. "Sic him, Pete! Sic him!" (49-50)

Both Phoenix and the hunter are ordering dogs to attack. What might be motivating Phoenix to order the black dog to attack? What might be motivating the hunter to order his dog to attack?

The man came back, and his own dog panted about them. "Well, I scared him off that, time," he said, and then he laughed and lifted his gun and pointed it at Phoenix.

She stood straight and faced him.

"Doesn't the gun scare you?" he said, still pointing it.

"No, sir, I seen plenty go off closer by, in my day, and for less than what I done," she said, holding utterly still. (52-55)

The hunter wins the showdown between the dogs and then turns the violence on Phoenix in the most dangerous moment of the story. This is a life or death situation, but Phoenix is so used to witnessing racial violence, she's not even scared. The hunter has the upper hand here—he could shoot Phoenix and the Jim Crow culture of the South would tolerate that. But Phoenix is not intimidated, and she does not back down. More power to you, Phoenix.

She walked on. The shadows hung from the oak trees to the road like curtains. Then she smelled wood smoke, and smelled the river, and she saw a steeple and the cabins on their steep steps. Dozens of little black children whirled around her. There ahead was Natchez shining. (58)

Black children playing on the outskirts of the city… is this a sign that younger generations of the black community might fare better than Phoenix has?

A lady came along in the crowd, carrying an armful of red, green, and silver-wrapped presents; she gave off perfume like the red roses in hot summer, and Phoenix stopped her. (60)

Phoenix asks this woman to help her tie her shoes. Welty uses this moment to give us a scenario in which people of two different races can meet each other in a peaceful way—a very different kind of interaction than what people were used to at the time.

"I never did go to school—I was too old at the Surrender," she said in a soft voice. (87)

The Civil War ended in 1865 with Robert E. Lee's surrender to Ulysses Grant in Appomattox Court House, Virginia. This is "the Surrender" Phoenix references. The implication is that for younger children who hadn't grown up in slavery, there were new possibilities available with the Surrender, but that those possibilities were not an option for Phoenix who passed her childhood as a slave.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...