Addressing ageism through Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path".

Author:Dilgen, Regina
Position:Critical essay
 
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At Palm Beach State College, where I teach English, I have found my classes deeply responsive to Eudora Welty's 1941 "A Worn Path." This much anthologized short story allows readers to enter an elderly woman's reality and to experience her perceptions. The protagonist Phoenix Jackson is on a journey she makes twice a year to a clinic for medicine to treat her grandson, who has been injured by swallowing lye. Her journey, a walk of many miles on part of the Natchez Trace in Mississippi, reveals her courage and tenacity, and, more broadly, also symbolically explores the obstacles she has faced throughout her life on this Worn Path. Phoenix is old, black, a woman, and impoverished. The intersection of these aspects of her reality allows students to understand the complexities of identity in a hierarchal society. Phoenix's rising out of the over-determination of this culture, as her name implies, is what the reader comes to appreciate.

Age is an important component of Phoenix's identity as she makes her journey of love for her grandson, and she is of an older generation than all the other characters in the work. Referring to the end of the Civil War, Phoenix explains how her background has defined her: "'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'" (222). The reader becomes aware of her reality in historical context as, throughout the work, Phoenix is treated disrespectfully, due to her age and other aspects of her oppression. When she encounters a hunter--young, white, and male--and he points a gun at her, we comprehend her positioning. The hunter addresses her with arrogance and entitlement: "'Well, Granny,' he said, 'you must be a hundred years old, and scared of nothing. I'd give you a dime if I had any money with me. But you take my advice and stay home, and nothing will happen to you'" (220). Although she will not give up, Phoenix acknowledges the very real challenges she faces as an elderly person. "My senses is gone. I too old. I the oldest people I ever know" (218). And yet she behaves with wisdom and tolerance. When the hunter assesses her, "I know you old colored people! Wouldn't miss going to town to see Santa Claus!" (219), we understand that the character with the limited insights into others is the one in the more...

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