A Worn Path by Eudora Welty, 1941
The magic trick:
Withholding for most of the story the main character’s main motivation
Merry Christmas from the SSMT website! I hope it’s as wonderful day for you as it was in your best Christmas memories of childhood.
Today’s story, “A Worn Path,” isn’t merry, but it’s wonderful and a great holiday read. An old black woman in Mississippi is making a long walk. Welty withholds the details from the reader for much of the story. Where is she going? Why is she going there? That absence of motivation does two things – it forces the reader to really focus on the woman’s fatigue, and secondly, it disorients the reader, putting us in much the same position as the woman. Both effects really get the reader inside the woman’s perspective. Consider that this is a white woman writing about a 90-year-old black woman – in the 1940s South, no less. It’s an impressive feat.
Anyway, by the time we do learn where the woman is going and the reason for her trip, we are so invested in this character that the emotional weight of the news hits us like a ton of bricks. And that’s quite a trick on Welty’s part.
She kicked her foot over the furrow, and with mouth drawn down, shook her head once or twice in a little strutting way. Some husks blew down and whirled in streamers about her skirts.
Then she went on, parting her way from side to side with the cane, through the whispering field. At last she came to the end, to a wagon track where the silver grass blew between the red ruts. The quail were walking around like pullets, seeming all dainty and unseen.
“Walk pretty,” she said. “This the easy place. This the easy going.”
She followed the track, swaying through the quiet bare fields, through the little strings of trees silver in their dead leaves, past cabins silver from weather, with the doors and windows boarded shut, all like old women under a spell sitting there. “I walking in their sleep,” she said, nodding her head vigorously.
In a ravine she went where a spring was silently flowing through a hollow log. Old Phoenix bent and drank. “Sweet-gum makes the water sweet,” she said, and drank more. “Nobody know who made this well, for it was here when I was born.”
The track crossed a swampy part where the moss hung as white as lace from every limb. “Sleep on, alligators, and blow your bubbles.” Then the track went into the road.
Deep, deep the road went down between the high green-colored banks. Overhead the live-oaks met, and it was as dark as a cave.
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