Why I Live at the P.O.

by Eudora Welty

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 597

This comic story is an extended dramatic monologue told by Sister to an unnamed visitor to the post office, where she now lives after having left her home because of the return of her sister Stella-Rondo. As the title suggests, the story is an apologia in which Sister attempts to explain why she has decided to live in the post office of the small town of China Grove, where she is postmistress. The first line of the story establishes the problem quite clearly: “I was getting along fine with Mama, Papa-Daddy and Uncle Rondo until my sister Stella-Rondo just separated from her husband and came back home again.” Ostensibly, Sister’s decision is a result of all of her family turning against her after the return of Stella-Rondo, who earlier ran off with a traveling photographer, who, to hear Sister tell it, was her own boyfriend before Stella-Rondo stole him from her.

What makes the story both comic and complex is that the reader hears only Sister’s side of the story. As she says, Stella-Rondo broke up her and Mr. Whitaker by telling him that she was one-sided. To this Sister, in her own twisted logic that dominates the story, replies, “Bigger on one side than the other, which is a deliberate falsehood: I’m the same. Stella-Rondo is exactly twelve months to the day younger than I am and for that reason she’s spoiled.” It is this petty and petulant point of view of Sister that makes “Why I Live at the P.O.” a tour de force of southern idiom, one of Eudora Welty’s most admired stories.

Indeed, Sister is one-sided, and as she recounts the events that take place around the Fourth of July in China Grove, the reader sees through her seemingly banal defense. Sister is a childish woman obsessed with trivia and her persecution complex. She is also a delightful fictional creation made up of lovely illogic, and that is the key element in this hilarious story. The family comedy begins when Stella-Rondo claims that her two-year-old daughter, Shirley-T, is adopted; Sister denies this by saying that Shirley-T is “the spit-image of Pappa-Daddy if he’d cut off his beard.” Beginning with this remark by Sister, Stella-Rondo methodically turns each member of the family against Sister until Sister, unable to bear it any longer, systematically goes through the house taking everything that belongs to her and setting up housekeeping in the post office. The list of the things that Sister gathers up—a sewing-machine motor, a calendar with first-aid remedies on it, a thermometer, a Hawaiian ukulele, and bluebird wall vases—is in itself a wonderfully comic catalog.

Thus, the plot of the story is minimal, even trivial. In fact, trivia is what seems to characterize this extended monologue, for it is difficult for the reader to take seriously any of the events of the story that Sister tells. The reader feels superior to the characters in the story, as is typical of comedy, because he or she can laugh at the foolishness of the values they embody. At the end of the story, when Sister says that she likes it at the “P.O.,” with everything cater-cornered, and that she wants the world to know that she is happy, the reader perhaps suspects that she protests too much. At this point, one must look back on the story and try to get beneath Sister’s own stated justification for her actions. Only then can the reader answer the basic question: Why does Sister live at the P.O.?

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