Why I Live at the P.O. by Eudora Welty, 1941
WHY I LIVE AT THE P.O.
by Eudora Welty, 1941
Eudora Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O.," first published in 1941 and collected in A Curtain of Green in the same year, has become one of her most popular stories. It is certainly her most famous comic work. The farcical quality of the alienation of Sister, the narrator, from her family is sustained primarily through Welty's brilliant management of patterns of discourse among the characters and of references contemporary to the story's southern setting. The story, which is set in China Grove, Mississippi, explores the growing frustration of Sister with Mama, her grandfather Papa-Daddy, and Uncle Rondo as their allegiances shift from Sister to Stella-Rondo, her younger sister. Sister is the local postmistress, a job she has obtained through the influence of her grandfather, and although she is quick to point out that her post office is "next to smallest" in Mississippi, it is clear that she has been a major force in her family and a contact with the outside world. Stella-Rondo's unexpected reappearance after separating from her husband, Mr. Whitaker, disrupts the position Sister has established, reduces her privileged status, and ultimately results in her leaving home to live at the P.O. The story's strength is the manner in which Welty depicts Sister's attempts to win sympathy that, instead, reveal her growing neuroses.
Part of the animosity Sister bears toward her sibling results from the fact that she had dated Mr. Whitaker first and believes that Stella-Rondo stole him from her. The story's opening revelation—Stella-Rondo's "deliberate, calculated falsehood" that Sister "was one-sided. Bigger on one side than the other"—immediately establishes both the dominating narrative voice and the highly personal terms that will help to escalate its conflict. More misrepresentations from Stella-Rondo follow, and the narrator herself soon begins to distort the effect and importance of what is happening, thus raising questions about her own reliability. Only a few dramatic actions occur. Uncle Rondo, for instance, throws a string of firecrackers in Sister's bedroom at 6:30 in the morning in revenge for a supposed slight. How events are revealed is far more important than what happens, for the hothouse atmosphere of the extended family consists largely of verbal relationships. This small group of people amuse—and define—themselves primarily by talking and by creating scenes. The stylistic texture of the narrator's speech patterns is the story's real essence, and it provides the fabric from which Sister's world is fashioned.
Stella-Rondo's success in displacing Sister depends largely on her ability to spin mysterious and exotic suggestions from her experiences. For example, her relationship with Mr. Whitaker, a Yankee from Illinois, is a source of mystery to the unconventional Rondo family. Stella-Rondo's curious flesh-colored kimono, which Uncle Rondo ends up wearing around the yard, strikes Sister as a "contraption" she "wouldn't be found dead in." To Stella-Rondo, however, it is part of her trousseau, which Mr. Whitaker has taken "several dozen photographs" of her wearing. Most mysterious is the two-year-old adopted daughter with whom she returns. Sister not only suspects that Stella-Rondo was pregnant with Shirley T. when she was married but that Shirley T., who "hasn't spoken one single, solitary word to a human being" since her arrival, may have mental problems. Shirley T., it turns out, is not only able to belt out "OE'm Pop-OE the Sailor-r-r-r Ma-a-an!" in the "loudest Yankee voice" Sister has ever heard, but she is also able to tap-dance. Mama, who was also initially suspicious, responds by embracing the "little precious darling thing" and by turning against Sister. After even Uncle Rondo is alienated from Sister and launches his firecracker attack, she decides to move out. The long list of belongings she decides to take with her includes the electric fan, the davenport pillow she had done in needlepoint, her radio, Mama's sewing machine motor that she helped pay to have repaired, the Hawaiian ukulele, and the watermelon rind preserves. The word choice used to describe the items defines precisely the private domesticity of the family in their rural Mississippi locale. It is through an identification with this kind of homespun detail that Sister has established her identity, and her removal of the items helps dramatize her sense of displacement.
Welty's choice of details also unifies the story. Recurring war-related images and the fact that most of the action occurs on the Fourth of July provide a military or patriotic motif that emphasizes the family's own conflict. Abundant references to commercial brand-name products like a Milky Way candy bar, an Add-a-Pearl necklace, and Casino and Old Maid card games, to historical personages like Nelson Eddy, and to actual locations like Mammoth Cave and Cairo heighten the absurdity of the family's idiosyncratic, cartoonlike rivalries. Sister's predilection for extraneous description—for example, she says that Mama "weighs two hundred pounds and has real tiny feet"—maintains a consistently humorous tone throughout the story. Perhaps most important are the recurring references to the mail and the radio, both of which provide a means of verbal communication with the outside world. These become the systems of communication that Sister attempts to control in her post office at the story's conclusion.
Underlying its exposure of the often hilarious flaws and self-centered complications of a southern family, "Why I Live at the P.O." probes the mysteries and paradoxes of manipulated language. Sister's attempt to cling to and then to break out of the communal fabric of her family's words and beliefs is, in fact, an attempt at self-definition. Appreciating the distortions revealed in this masterful comic monologue should generate a good-natured skepticism about the limits of language used to define any relationships or moral attitudes.