Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The method of “Why I Live at the P.O.” is that of a dramatic monologue. Thus, its closest literary analogue is the dramatic monologue of Robert Browning, in which there is always a gap between the way speakers perceive themselves and the way listeners perceive them. A dramatic monologue is a work in which speakers reveal themselves unawares. In such a form, the speakers, even as they seem to damn another character, actually only succeed in damning themselves. Perhaps the literary character that Sister resembles even more than a figure from Browning’s poetry is Fyodor Dostoevski’s Underground Man in his short novel Zapiski iz podpolya (1864; Notes from the Underground, 1954). As it is for Dostoevski’s nameless antihero, Sister’s logic is not so much insane as it is the rational pushed to such an extreme that it becomes irrational and perverse. It is indeed the style of her speech—that is, the whole of the story—which reveals this problem.

“Why I Live at the P.O.” is different in both tone and technique from Welty’s usual fiction. In most of her best-known stories, reality is transformed into fantasy and fable, and the logic is not that of ordinary life; here, in contrast, things remain stubbornly real. Many readers have noted that the dreamlike nature of Welty’s stories depends on her ability to squeeze meaning out of the most trivial of details. Here, however, in a story that depends on the triviality of things, there is no dreamlike effect; the trivial details are comically allowed to remain trivial. Regardless of the difference in style, however, here as elsewhere in Welty’s fiction, the focus is on the isolation of the self.