Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
It is often difficult to discuss the theme of a comic story such as this one, for to explicate comedy too often puts one to the thankless task of explaining a joke. What makes “Why I Live at the P.O.” amusing, however, according to many readers (it is one of Welty’s best-known fictions) is that Sister is a comic example of the schizophrenia of obsession, that she thus becomes almost mechanical in her reactions to her persecution complex. The reader laughs at the story because the characters seem so obsessed with trivia; yet, as is typical of most comedy, there is something serious beneath the laughter: The reader despairs to think that people can be so obsessed with such petty matters.
Many of Welty’s fictional characters seem isolated in some way; this story is one in which the reader must discover the nature of that isolation. Thus, one might say that this story is about the reader’s gradual discovery of why Sister does live at the P.O., and that this reason goes beyond what Sister says, although what Sister says is all the reader really has. Indeed, the reader must analyze Sister’s situation as she herself describes it and develop a dual perspective: a sympathetic identification with Sister followed by a detached judgment of her actions and speech. The problem of the story is that of Sister, who is the kind of character who cannot do things herself, but instead must have someone else act out her own desires. In this story, it can be said that Sister is...
(The entire section is 605 words.)
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