Issues of race often inform Welty’s fiction for the fact that so much of her fiction is set in Mississippi during the 1940s and 1950s. Phoenix’s brief encounters on her journey typify the views of many Southern whites during the era. A white hunter helps her out of a ditch but patronizes her and trivializes her journey: “I know you old colored people! Wouldn’t miss going to town to see Santa Claus!” He also taunts her by pointing his loaded gun at her and asking, “Doesn’t the gun scare you?” Through these exchanges, Welty shows how some whites regarded blacks. He also calls her “Granny,” a term common for older African-American women. Often whites would call older blacks “Aunt,” “Granny,” or “Uncle” as a way of denying them their dignity and individuality. In another example of this, the nurse calls her “aunt Phoenix” instead of the more formal “Mrs. Jackson.” Although no one in the story is actually rude or discriminatory towards Phoenix, Welty demonstrates the subtle persecutions that blacks suffer in a white world. Duty and Responsibility
Phoenix Jackson is mobilized by her sense of duty to her grandson. Because she is the only person her grandson has to rely on — “We is the only two left in the world,” she tells the nurse — she is determined to make it to town to obtain the medicine that will soothe his injured throat. Her sense of responsibility dominates her personality, overcoming her encroaching senility, her poor eyesight, and her difficulty in walking. Phoenix relates her determination with a sense of urgency to the hunter: she tells the hunter: “I bound to go to town, mister. . . . The time come around.” In the character of Phoenix, Welty relates the virtue in doing selfless things for others. The nurse also has a duty and a responsibility to keep giving Phoenix the medicine as long as she keeps coming to get it. She says that “the doctor said as long as you came to get it, you could have it. . . . But it’s an obstinate case.” The attendant gives Phoenix a nickel to spend, but she seems to do it out of a sense of duty because it is Christmas time. Even the hunter, who helps Phoenix out of the ditch, and the young woman on the street, who ties her shoes, seem to act out of duty, not out of compassion or love. Only Phoenix’s actions — making the arduous journey into town for her grandson — transcend responsibility and are motivated by a sense of true love. Guilt
A minor theme in “A Worn Path” concerns guilt and innocence. Phoenix feels guilty when she picks up the nickel that falls from the pocket of the white hunter. She indicates in her words to the hunter that she believes that she deserves to be shot for the offense: “I seen plenty go off closer by, in my day, and for less than what I done.” Even though the hunter has lied to her, claiming that he does not have any money, she knows it is not right to retaliate through artifice on her own part. However, other actions that should inspire guilt — the hunter aiming a loaded gun at her face, for instance — do not. The attendant at the doctor’s office, perhaps feeling guilty for her impatient comment, “Are you deaf? ” may be offering amends when she gives Phoenix the nickel. The symbol of innocence in the story is surely the grandson, a helpless young boy who is unable to care for himself and whose throat periodically closes up, causing him to gasp for breath. His innocence is protected by the caring and love his grandmother provides. Readers wonder, knowing how old and frail Phoenix is, what will become of him once she dies and he is left without anyone to care for him. Resurrection
Phoenix’s name points to the theme of resurrection in “A Worn Path.”...