Notes on “a worn Path” Prewriting Activities for “a worn Path” Plot summary


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Notes on “A Worn Path”

Prewriting Activities for “A Worn Path”

Plot summary

A very old black lady lives out in country. The story starts with her out walking on a path. She rests and has a hallucination about a boy with some marble cake. Then she meets a white hunter who helps her out of a ditch that a dog had knocked her into. He drops a nickel. She distracts him to pick it up and then he points a gun in her face. He admires that she isn’t afraid and she goes on her way. She needs to go to the city; we later learn it is for medicine for her grandson. After overcoming many obstacles, Phoenix gets to town and forgets why she is in the big building. The attendant considers her a worthless charity case but the nurse helps her memory. She tricks the attendant to give her five pennies instead of one. She plans to buy a windmill for grandson before heading home. (this is a very skimpy summary)

In “A Worn Path,” Eudora Welty combines a tight climatic structure with a strong sense of oral story-telling. She uses exposition, complication, crisis, climax, and resolution to order the experiences of Phoenix Jackson, but we also see the use of episodic events, “in medias” and a narrator who tells the story to make Phoenix Jackson a worthy protagonist, perhaps even a Hero.

Plot Structure Analysis

Exposition phase: (first four paragraphs)

  • December

  • old Negro woman

  • cane made from umbrella

  • tapping on ground

  • frozen earth

  • red rag on head

  • eyes blue with age

  • dark striped dress
  • long apron made of a sugar sack

  • large unlaced shoes

  • old hair smells like copper

  • emphasizing animals/ nature surrounding Phoenix

  • age and frailty of character

  • slow vivid description to set the pace of an old country woman walking

Complication phase:

  • path ran up a hill

  • First conflict is the "hill"

  • Down thru oaks

  • Bush caught dress (not possible to allow tear; shows pride and poverty)

  • Log across creek (trusts her feet to go “autopilot” instead of using her failing eyes; concept of muscle memory?)

  • Hallucinating boy with cake (mind failing?)

  • Barb wire fence (shows poverty no money for treatment)

  • Man? Ghost? Scarecrow! (senses failing?)

  • Going was easy for a while

  • black dog knocks her into a ditch (so far all environmental conflicts in these encounters)

  • White Hunter "rescues her" (typical bigot of time period? Or potential bandit?)

  • Saucy reply to him. He is confident and superior in his mind.

  • Destination is revealed: town. No sir! (not to see Santa Claus)

  • Smart/ wily to distract man so she can “steal” his fallen nickel

  • Racial issue (social conflict)

  • God sees me stealing (psychological conflict of guilt?)

  • Old distrust eyes, trust feet from habit of worn path

  • Lady with packages "different side of that time"; very small kindness

  • That time (speech/packages/perfume clues that she is white?)

  • Attendant- snotty treats her "poor"

  • Nurse- business-like friendly; knows the situation; helpful kindness

Crisis: (some action or decision is required)

  • Why you here Granny?

  • the point of her journey and her mind fails her

Climax: (what action is taken?)

  • Her body has arrived safely but her mind is not present

  • It’s your grandson; He isn’t dead is he?; we get the facts and the reason for her journey

  • Remembers her grandson; I can tell him apart from all others in creation; is love enough to conquer senility?

  • She didn’t remember without prompting from the Nurse


  • “tricks” the attendant; gets 5 pennies, instead of one

  • leaves with extra money and plan to get a gift for her grandson; selfless

  • feet stepping down stairs to return to worn path

Character List


– we see her adventures throughout the story; it is her character which strives towards something; she is protagonist


White Hunter—is more developed than other minor characters with some sense of his attitudes and personality; arrogant, bully; young/white/male had all social power in that time; mainly functions as a major conflict/obstacle to overcome; either functions as representative of social conflict or historically accurate of “highway bandits”?
Attendant – is typical in her attitude towards “ignorant charity cases”; this is more an issue of prejudice against poverty than race; new to the job? Doesn’t “know” the clients as individual people yet; she has dialogue and minimal action; she is a flat character

Nurse – is businesslike in her manner and her job is to help people so she helps Phoenix without being overly sentimental or meddling; dialogue and action are crucial to the crisis/climax

Lady with Packages – seems to represent the fact that some humans are generous without an agenda or bigotry; has little dialogue and action; lacks development as a character; could be viewed as a prop in the setting or symbol of a theme or a plot device to keep the story moving and reveal more about the character Phoenix?
Grandson – we only know of him from the Nurse and Phoenix; we don’t see or hear him first hand; not sure he is still alive or merely a memory in denial; his existence and need are the motivation for the noble journey; extraordinarily important to the plot and theme; a mere plot device rather than a character?

Phoenix'>In-Depth Character Analysis


  • Old & still persevering

  • Knows the ways of the woods/animals—wise; experienced

  • Knows how to deal with people to survive and get what she wants—Hunter, Lady, Attendant

  • Has a sense of feisty humor—“Lying like a Junebug waiting to be turned over”

  • Pride—clean, tidy, won’t let the thorns tear her dress & wants shoes tied for going into the big building

  • Has great love for her grandson—willing to walk a long way at great risk to get him medicine

  • Willing to accept help—with shoes, with pennies, with medicine, with getting out of ditch

  • Willing to use her wits – to distract Hunter to “steal” the nickel, to keep him from shooting, to get shoes tied, to get 5 pennies

Setting: Poor, rural south

  • After emancipation: The Surrender Although the Emancipation Proclamation was first issued Sept. 22, 1862 unless they escaped to Northern states, most slaves weren’t freed until as late as 1865 after “The Surrender”

  • If Phoenix was too old to start attending school after The Surrender, then by 1934 when Natchez got its first electric lights she is already in her 80s!

  • Still under “Jim Crow” laws; paper windmills available for purchase but still a novelty for poor children; electric lights in the city 1934? , the place and time heavily influence the social attitudes of the characters

  • Lye in household for soap making: Making Lye Soap

  • effects of lye burns: death notice

Apron made of sugar sacks

The Natchez Trace

This 1935 photo shows a portion of the Old Trace that was modernized in Claiborne County, Mississippi.

Sections of the Old Trace are the common ground that connect us to the stories of people across centuries. The most celebrated travelers of the Natchez Trace were farmers and boatmen from the Ohio River regions of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky floating supplies down to ports in Natchez and New Orleans. The heaviest use of the Old Trace was from 1800 to about 1825 by men, known as "Kaintucks," who floated down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and returned north on foot. They would walk approximately 500 miles from Natchez to Nashville along the Natchez Trace in about 30 days. But the stories of the Old Trace reach far beyond the early 1800s. They include Mound Builders, Natchez, Choctaw, and Chickasaw Indians, preachers, bandits, slaves, soldiers, settlers, and even Meriwether Lewis.

But the story of the Natchez Trace is not just about the Kaintucks. The Old Trace ran through the heart of Choctaw and Chickasaw country. It also ran through a series of mounds that had been built by people over the previous 2000 years and through a diverse terrain of swamps, rivers, and rolling hills that provided significant obstacles for travelers.

God Myth:

Most god myths have been created by people to explain natural phenomena such as sunrise, sunset, weather, birth, death etc. While gods have special powers and great privileges, they also have responsibilities towards the people who worship them. While they may seem incomprehensible in regards to their attitude and treatment of their people, they ultimately have to share gifts, bestow blessings and make sacrifices to sustain the humans in their control. After all, how much fun is it to be a god if one doesn’t have someone performing the worship?

Phoenix Myth: Most cultures have the equivalent of the phoenix myth. The Phoenix bird is associated with the sun, birth, death, sacrifice, and re-birth. In various cultures it is also associated with a person of high moral and intellectual integrity as well as divine power. It is at heart, a result of man’s yearning for immortality. The basic story has the great bird living and thriving until a time of need (determined by many different omens.) When the time has come, the Phoenix builds a large nest, sets it afire and throws itself into the flames to be consumed to ashes. From the ashes and flames, it is reborn and springs whole and renewed to further duty. From this willingness to sacrifice bodily existence, it experiences immortality and wisdom at the cost of great pain and suffering of temporary death.

Quest Motif:

We also see elements of the Quest Motif to create a hero and illuminate the theme of a noble mission. Most quest stories revolve around an individual’s need to seek and return with a mystical object that will benefit a society or people. The mystical object is usually of healing or spiritual nature and can be concrete or abstract. The Searcher must be proven worthy on a journey through trials or tests of skills, wisdom, and courage. These episodes of testing form the plot and the heart of the narrative with the climatic moment of epiphany often being of secondary interest. Once the hero has been proven worthy and has found the object of the quest, he/she must attempt to bring it back to his land/society/people. This will provide opportunities for further testing and episodes of adventure which can create suspense for the eventual success of the quest itself.

Phoenix – rise from the ashes of sacrifice for the benefit of others

Jackson – well-respected historical/political figure; gain respect and pride by adopting such an important and regular “American” name by a former slave

The Worn Path – cycle of journey to be repeated; human life cycle: journey from birth to death; unending/repetition

Umbrella cane – poverty/thrifty post-depression era; age/needs physical support

Bird images associated with phoenix and repeated throughout story

Dead birds at hunter’s belt-he has the power and willingness to take life; admires Phoenix’s courage so he allows her to live

Dr. certificate/license on wall- an unobtainable dream of education; high honor; authority; recognition of achievement
Theme keywords

  • aging; old ≠ worthless; force to be reckoned with

  • bigotry against race, age, and gender; love vs. hate or fear in the heart?

  • charity/poor ≠ worthless; no dignity; no honor; no love

  • all three types of conflict, just like life contains all forms of conflict; environmental conflict harsh and life-threatening; social conflict dramatic and traumatic; but psychological/self conflict most damaging to psyche and soul

  • worn path a “life cycle” or journey all humans travel

  • enduring and overcoming obstacles

      • humor

      • determination

      • selflessness

  • great selfless love

  • sacrifice at great risk or potentially great cost
  • power: personal vs. social/political/cultural; external power can be easily taken but personal power that results from self-value/dignity/honor/love is much stronger

Typical clichés one might think of:

Love conquers all

No man is an Island

We’re Poor, but we’re Proud

A Nobel Mission makes a Nobel Person

True Love sacrifices everything
Random thoughts:

Can love and determination truly conquer all? Can it conquer Death?

Can the reader trust Phoenix’s judgment? Is the grandson alive? Is he going to last? If he is in fact dead already, is she in denial or truly senile? Does this change the meaning of the journey/sacrifice for Phoenix or merely change how the reader views the story?
Will she be able to continue to bring him renewed life endlessly? If she eventually fails to get the medicine and return then does that lessen the honor and meaning of her cycle of sacrifice? She will eventually die. If she doesn’t find a new “searcher” to bequeath this mission to, then the grandson will also die.
Social and environmental challenges/conflicts become rather insignificant in the face of losing one’s mind/spirit due to age; if the essence of the mind cannot last and overcome all obstacles then what does that mean for us?
Does the Worn Path indicate a never-ending journey even after physical existence? We know her body will eventually end but will her love and willingness to sacrifice?
So after you ponder these things, you will need to articulate your idea of what the main concept or philosophy this story suggests to you.
Write it as a universal statement rather than a story specific statement:

  • e.g. “When love is selfless it provides the determination to endure hardships and self-sacrifice.”

  • Rather than, “Phoenix Jackson’s selfless love for her Grandson provides her with the determination to overcome her obstacles.”

Then the point of your essay becomes stating your premise (idea) explaining your premise, providing evidence to support your premise regarding your theories.

One can write about any narrative element, any combination of the elements, how the author developed or used narrative technique, how meaning is created for the reader, etc. There are many approaches for writing about short stories.
Possible approaches for thinking/writing critically about “A Worn Path”:

  1. Elements of linear plot

    1. Exposition

    2. Complication

    3. Crisis

    4. Climax

    5. Resolution

  2. Elements of oral narration

    1. Episodes

    2. In medias res

    3. Tone

    4. Point of view

  3. Elements of the Quest

    1. Central character as hero

    2. Journey

    3. Episodes of obstacles

    4. Noble mission

    5. Mystical healing object

    6. Difficulty of return

  4. Types of conflicts

    1. Physical

    2. Social

    3. Psychological

  5. Importance of setting

    1. Time period

    2. Wilderness

    3. Community

  6. Importance of character

    1. Age

    2. Poverty

    3. Senility

    4. Dignity

    5. Selflessness

    6. Wisdom

  7. Keywords of theme

    1. Poverty

    2. Prejudice

    3. Aging

    4. Sacrifice

    5. Determination

Sample thesis statements:
In “A Worn Path” the setting is an integral part of the plot structure due to the main character’s age and poverty, as well as the social limitations of the time period.

Physical, social and psychological obstacles encountered by Phoenix Jackson create the pattern of conflicts in the plot of “A Worn Path.”
“A Worn Path” is structured as a quest due to the trials and triumphs of Phoenix Jackson in her noble journey to obtain the bottle of healing liquid.
Conflicts based on setting, character, and theme control the plot of “A Worn Path.”
In general, the most powerful and interesting essays deal with how the narrative elements in the story create and support your interpretation of theme. This type of essay requires higher critical thinking than simply breaking down and listing the parts of the plot structure, or how the reader gets to know the character through action, speech, and appearance, or how the time period influenced the plot.
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