In the previous post, I wrote about Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path" and Ernest Gaines' "The Sky is Gray." As mentioned, Gaines said that he had to read Welty's story first in order to write his own. For this post I will continue the exploration of these two texts in conjunction with one another. Specifically, I will examine the journeys that Old Phoenix and James both take to town. Throughout their excursions, both characters experience hardships and encounter racism on their way to a doctor's office and dentist's office respectively.
As Phoenix makes her way through the countryside, she struggles to get to the doctor in Natchez. When the frozen path begins to go up a hill, she speaks to herself, saying, "Seem like there is chains about my feet time I get this far" (276). Welty's story oozes with symbolism, and Phoenix's statement here registers as symbolic. Phoenix can be seen as a symbol of African American struggle from slavery to the 1930s. Upon reaching the hill, she notices that she will be tired, as she always is at this point, and she specifically mentions that her feet feel like they are harnessed in "chains." The struggle against Jim Crow for African Americans in a racist society can be seen in Phoenix's comment. Immediately after she crests the mountain, Phoenix looks behind her to see where she came from the she begins her descent on the other side. However, her descent is not smooth either. When she reaches the bottom of the hill, her dress becomes ensnared in thorns. Trying to pull the dress free, it only become caught in other places. Phoenix tells the culprits of her captivity, "Thorns, you're doing your appointed work. Never want to let folks pass, no sir" (277). Whereas racism and oppression are implied in Gaines' story, they are symbolically portrayed in Welty's through Phoenix's reference to chains, her entanglement in thorns that will not let her go, and in her "trial" to get past the log over the creek.
After resting, and being confronted with the apparition of a boy bringing her cake, Phoenix travels through fields of "dead trees" in a "withered cotton field" and "past cabins silver from weather" (278, 280). See Kevin Moberly's "Toward the North Star: Eudora Welty's 'A Worn Path' and the Slave Narrative Tradition" for a discussion of previous criticism of Welty's story and its connection to James Olney's characteristics of slave narratives. When Old Phoenix begins again, she comes across the white hunter, and her struggles against a society that subjugates her become real instead of just symbolic. She sees a nickel fall out of the hunter's pocket; to distract him so she can pick the nickel up, she sets the hunter's dog and a stray to fighting. The hunter leaves, and she picks up the nickel. Upon returning, the hunter, who does not know that Phoenix retrieved the nickel, levels his gun at her, asking, "Doesn't the gun scare you?" (283) Phoenix basically admits to taking the nickel, but the hunter doesn't realize it, and he lowers the gun and smiles, warning her to "take [his] advice and stay home, and nothing will happen to [her]" (283-284). The hunter's confrontation, whether joking on not, shows the relationships between whites and blacks in the Jim Crow South. Even his warning to Phoenix displays that no matter how much she tries to climb the hill or get through the thorns that ensnare her, there will always be those that hold her back because of the color of her skin.
In "The Sky is Gray," Gaines does not overtly present Jim Crown racism. Instead, he subtly implies the segregation that exists in Bayonne. Eight-year-old James, getting on the bus, does not mention that it is segregated; instead, he simply states, "When I pass the little sign that say 'White' and 'Colored,' I start looking for a seat" (91). James only says this after the fact that whites sit in the front of the bus and blacks in the back, nothing more. Later, James and Octavia enter Bayonne and see "grass shooting right out of the sidewalk," bringing to mind that James is no longer in the quarters where he can move and go as he pleases without the ever-present fear of oppression. Upon entering Bayonne, James makes three references to segregation and racism. The first comes when the mother and son pass by a school. James sees the "white children playing in the yard" and then passes a cafe where people are eating while he is cold (93). Octavia tells him to keep his eyes forward, teaching him how to act in segregated Bayonne. Continuing to walk, James bumps into a white man, and Octavia jerks him away. Finally, as they come upon the courthouse. James notices the flag. He comments, "This flag ain't like the one we got at school. This one here ain't got but a handful of stars. One at school got a big pile of stars-one for every state" (93). The flag, of course, is the Confederate Flag, a symbol of Southern hostility towards African Americans.
Both Gaines' and Welty's stories contain images of racism and oppression; each, however, presents segregation and struggle in different ways. Welty presents it through the use of symbols that Phoenix comes upon during her journey. Gaines implies Jim Crow segregation through the narration of an eight year old. There is more that could be said about these stories, especially when considering Phoenix and Octavia in relationship to one another as they show strength in their journeys to town. There could also be a discussion of the ways the nurses treat Phoenix and the scene in the dentist's office in "The Sky is Gray." What do you think about these two items? Make sure you leave a comment below.
There will not be any new blog posts over the next two weeks. Make sure you check back in on Tuesday January 6, 2015 because I will have a post on tips for teaching Gaines and information about the Second Annual Summer Teaching Institute at the Ernest J. Gaines Center.
Gaines, Ernest J. "The Sky is Gray." Bloodline. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1976. 83-117. Print.
Welty, Eudora. "A Worn Path." A Curtain of Green, And Other Stories. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1979. 275-289. Print.