“A Worn Path” describes the journey of an elderly black woman named Phoenix Jackson who walks from her home to the city of Natchez to get medicine for her sick grandson. The landscape as Phoenix perceives it becomes a primary focus of the vividly evoked narrative; nature is depicted as alternately beautiful and as an impediment to Phoenix’s progress. As she walks, she struggles against intense fatigue and poor eyesight, as well as such obstacles as thorn bushes and barbed wire.
The combined effects of her old age, her poor vision, and her poetic view of the world heighten the lyricism and symbolism of the narrative. For example, she mistakes a scarecrow for a dancing “ghost” until she draws close enough to touch its empty sleeve. A particularly tense episode occurs when she encounters a white hunter who appears friendly at first, but then makes a condescending suggestion that she is probably “going to town to see Santa Claus. ” When he inadvertently drops a nickel, Phoenix distracts him and manages to pick it up, feeling that she is stealing as she does so.
The hunter suddenly points his gun at her, and while he may have seen her pick up the nickel, it is unclear what his actual motivation is for this threatening gesture. Phoenix, however, does not appear afraid; the hunter lowers his gun and she manages to continue on her way unharmed and without returning the nickel. Finally reaching the “shining” city of Natchez, Phoenix enters the “big building”—presumably a hospital—where a nurse questions her about her grandson, asking if he has died.
Phoenix remains strangely quiet at first, as if deaf to the nurse’s questions. She then apologizes, claiming that her memory had suddenly failed her—that for a moment, she could not remember why she had made her long journey. The story concludes with Phoenix’s heartfelt description of her grandson, whose throat was injured several years ago when he swallowed lye. She declares that he is not dead, receives the medicine for him, along with another nickel, with which she decides to buy him a Christmas present—a “little windmill. “