How do I know if I can trust the first-person narrator or if she's exaggerating everything in "Why I Live at the P.O."?
Eudora Welty's "Why I live at the PO" is a classic example of the unrelaiable narrator. Sister’s function as an unreliable narrator whose verbal and psychological exaggerations both mirror and instigate her ultimate isolation from her family that eventually leaves her alone at the P.O. Sister’s paranoia and jealousy lead her to question the veracity of her family members, particularly Stella-Rondo. They also lead her to engage in conversations with her family that lead to her final, comic alienation from them—usually because, as she perceives it, one family member falsely reports her comments to another.
The story’s opening paragraphs frame Sister’s narrative by emphasizing the differences between herself and Stella-Rondo. We learn that Stella–Rondo, who had “just separated from her husband and came back home again,” married Mr. Witaker after having broke up his alleged prior relationship with Sister “through a deliberate calculated falsehood.” She now threatens Sister’s relationship with her family with whom “she was getting along fine” in Stella-Rondo’s absence. We also immediately witness Sister’s amusingly irrational assertion that Stella-Rondo is “spoiled” becauseshe’s “exactly twelve months to the day younger than” Sister.
Readers can also hear a crucial detail about Stella-Rondo that so incites Sister’s jealousy: “She always had anything in the world she wanted and then she’d throw it away,” from “this gorgeous Add-a-Pearl necklace” to her husband. If Stella-Rondo’s “calculated falsehood”—telling Mr. Whitaker that Sister “was one sided. Bigger on one side than the other”—resulted in her marriage, escape to the North, and the apparent bearing of a daughter before her return to her family, the “lies” she tells when she does return lead to Sister’s shorter flight to her isolation at the P.O.
The first of these lies is to tell her mother that her daughter “Shirley-T.’s adopted, I can prove it.” Whereas the mother is willing to believe Stella-Rondo (“She looks just like Shirley Temple to me”), Sister insists that “She looks just like a cross between Mr. Whitaker and Papa-Daddy.” Sister claims to have told Stella-Rondo that Shirley T. “was the spit-image of Papa-Daddy if he’d cut his beard, which of course he’d never do in the world.” Stella-Rondo, however, “turns Papa-Daddy against” Sister by reporting to him that “Sister says she fails to understand why you don’t cut off your beard.”
Sister’s suggestion that she is being maligned and misrepresented by Stella-Rondo may be called into question by the dissatisfaction she registers toward her grandfather and the job he used his influence to get as China Grove’s postmistress: “‘Oh, Papa-Daddy,’ I says, ‘I didn’t say any of a thing. I never dreamed [your beard] was a bird’s nest, I have always been grateful though this is the next smallest P.O. in the state of Mississippi, and I do not enjoy being referred to as a hussy by my own grandfather.’” Here, Sister narrates two versions of a conversation, and her protests do not prevent Papa-Daddy from believing Stella-Rondo’s version—for Sister, evidence that Stella-Rondo “turns” everyone “against her”; for the reader, evidence both of her paranoia and her unreliability as a narrator.
The story has a classic ironic title--a post office promotes communication between people; Sister reduces it.