The One-Sided Narrator in "Why I Live at the P.O."
‘‘Why I Live at the P.O.’’ takes the form of a dramatic monologue, with Sister’s emphatic first-person account of her sister’s return home and her own eventual self-exile at the post office given in a direct appeal to the reader. Sister argues her position on the family argument forcefully, presenting overwhelming evidence of Stella-Rondo’s craftiness and her own terrible persecution. Furthermore, she presents her case with the fierce conviction that she is in the right, and with no indication that the matter is anything but of the gravest order. By giving Sister’s voice complete free reign, Welty would seem to give Sister every possible advantage in winning the reader to her side. There is no place in the story where Mama, Papa-Daddy, Uncle Rondo, or especially Stella-Rondo get to present the facts of the feud from their perspectives. The only information available is that provided by Sister. However, this does not mean that the reader is likely to be convinced by Sister’s version of events. I would hazard to guess that most readers respond to Sister’s list of grievances with some skepticism and that very few indeed fail to see the humor in the situation that she herself takes so seriously. ‘‘I was trying to write about the way people who live away off from nowhere have to amuse themselves by dramatizing every situation that comes along by exaggerating it,’’ Welty explains in Conversations with Eudora Welty. In this essay I will look at Welty’s use of Sister’s own dominating voice to reveal the weaknesses in her understanding of the family fight and family dynamics, focusing on Welty’s playful references to physical and ethical disproportion.
Sister doesn’t ask readers for sympathy so much as she asserts her right to it. The story is one long, self-righteous justification of why Sister left home and moved to the post office, a situation that benefits her not at all except in her right to claim the moral high ground. According to Sister, the entire community is now divided into ‘‘sides’’—those who see the justice of Sister’s position and those who ‘‘will quit buying stamps just to get on the right side of Papa-Daddy.’’ The irony of Sister’s vehement appeal to the reader to take her side relates to her inability to see it as just that—a self-interested and subjective perspective. Sister speaks as if people who want to stay on the ‘‘right side’’ of Papa-Daddy are self-serving and biased, while those who agree with her are simply correct. In Sister’s view, there is only one way to see the truth—her own way. But true justice is predicated on balance and perspective—the ability to measure and evaluate evidence from more than one side, as represented in the icon of the scales of justice. Sister employs illogical logic, evoking the abstract principles of fairness in a manner that shamelessly and transparently skews the scales of justice in favor of her own point of view.
The central issue in the conflict between Sister and Stella-Rondo is the affection of Mr. Whitaker. In the opening paragraph of the story, Sister asserts her initial claim to Mr. Whitaker and offers a somewhat perplexing explanation of how Stella-Rondo broke them up. ‘‘Told him I was one-sided. Bigger on one side than the other, which is a deliberate, calculated falsehood: I’m the same.’’ Throughout the story, Sister represents Stella-Rondo as amazingly successful at turning those closest to Sister against her by telling bald-faced lies about her. But, in this first example of Stella-Rondo’s deceit that Sister cites, the reader is in no position to judge the facts of the matter. In Eudora Welty: A Study of the Short Fiction critic Carol Ann Johnston explains that Stella-Rondo’s accusation that Sister is ‘‘one-sided’’ and ‘‘bigger on one side than the other,’’ refers to the folk wisdom that every woman has one breast that is slightly larger than the other. ‘‘Sister’s...
(The entire section is 18,091 words.)