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Submitted by Trudy Schrandt (profile)
Title and Author: Worn Path (full text) by Eudora Welty
Genre: Short story
Themes: If we are going to last, we have to overcome selfishness by loving others; the most unfortunate and isolated are often superior; better to live with the uncertainty of life than the certainty of death
Class Type: Male, different age groups, most with chemical dependency or violence issues
This is the story of an elderly black woman traveling to town during the Christmas season for medicine for her young grandson. She has traveled this "worn path" many times before as she does on this day. She encounters elements of nature that would stay her progress. As she approaches town, she meets and deals with the dangers a white hunter presents. Once in town, her abilities seem to be more challenged than they were in the country. As she arrives at the doctor's office, the ordeal of her journey seems to get the best of her as she is unable to answer questions put to her by the staff. Rallying so that she can obtain the needed medicine and return to her grandson, she is able to obtain a nickel to add to another nickel she "stole" from the hunter in order to buy a paper windmill for her grandson before she returns by the same path.
Approach: I often use this as the first reading for a new session. When they have completed the reading, they often wonder why I had them read a story about some "crazy old woman". This provides me with the opportunity to show that by taking a closer look at characters and their actions they can come to understand a great deal. It is also an opportunity to show how symbols work to intensify the story and its meaning. I DO NOT teach symbols during the term, but by exposing the students to a story containing as many as this one does, I find that the participants come back again and again throughout the term with, "Isn't this a symbol of . . .?" or "This occurs too often, is it a symbol of something?" Included in the initial handouts, I have given them a handout containing some symbols to be alert for, so this plays in also. When they point out symbols later on in the semester, it does help with the understanding.
I start out the discussion with a character analysis of Phoenix. We talk about her name, her clothes, her eyes, her shoes, etc. "Why is Phoenix labeled stubborn?"
I then discuss the people she meets next: the hunter, the shopper, and the women in the doctor's office. We can begin to compare Phoenix and her actions to theirs. This is an open door to discussion about the how to live a full life as opposed to a selfish one.
The setting of the back-country compared with the city is also very effective. I like to ask whether the "Christmas Spirit" is more alive in the ruts and brambles of the path or in the lighted city with the tinsel about. "Why does Phoenix traverse the back-country with surprising ease but have such difficulty with the city?" is also an important question.
Often the plight of her grandson becomes an issue. We are often divided about his true physical existence/health. I will let the argument ensue for a bit, then I will ask whether it matters. Like Don Quixote (windmill), it is what and who propel us on our journeys. Our paths, if we are to truly experience the humanness of our lives, are filled with human suffering, isolation, and endurance if we are to survive. We discuss the feelings of suffering and isolation that the participates have experienced in their journeys to survival.
The most significant questions are, "What is Phoenix's true dream?" and "What is the significance of the Worn Path?" This usually takes us to the end of the class.
Occasionally, one of the participants will note that this has to do with the racial equality. If this does come up, we revisit the physical description of Phoenix, her age at the time of the end of the Civil War, her hallucination about the marble cake, the hunter's demeanor, the gold-framed diploma and her dream, and the reason she has to come to the clinic. While this is an excellent avenue to explore, we often run out of time. More importantly, we can agree that regardless of the racial issues that can be read into the story, it is still a story of what it takes to have courage enough to endure.
This is an easy story to lay open for the participants and seems to make it easy for them to associate some of their journeys with that of Phoenix. For me, it is important because they leave with the feeling that there really is more to literature than they thought.