Style and Technique
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.
Modern America and the Provincial South
Over the first few decades of the twentieth century, the lifestyles of citizens across the United States became more homogeneous, and a sense of a unified national identity and culture began to solidify. This was the result of a complicated combination of factors, including urbanization, increased centralization of the government, the growing international economic and military power of the United States, and the rise of mass-culture mediums such as film and radio. In significant ways, however, the South was set apart from this trend. More than any other region, the South retained a separate culture from the rest of the country. In the Civil War the South had lost the right to secede from the Union, but this defeat served in some ways to strengthen regional identity. In particular, in contrast to the mainstream American ethos of progress and change, the South remained rooted in history and in sometimes romanticized visions of the agrarian past. This was reflected in the conservatism and traditionalism of the region in comparison to the rest of the country. One of the most important aspects of southern identity was the small town and rural lifestyle, with close-knit family and community at its center.
Welty attended graduate school in New York City. A few years later she returned home and took a job that required her to travel throughout rural Mississippi. Thus, shortly before she wrote ‘‘Why I Live at the P.O.,’’ Welty observed two extreme examples of American culture. New York was the center of everything new in art, style, custom, and business. It was fast-paced and dynamic but also alienating and isolating. Upon returning to Mississippi and spending time in its most isolated rural communities, Welty was able to see more clearly the uniqueness of the traditional southern society, with its emphasis on family and community. ‘‘Why I Live at the P.O.’’ reflects the insularity of small-town southern life. Sister is largely oblivious to the world outside of her family and community. However, some of her tension with Stella-Rondo is based on Stella-Rondo’s wider experiences in the North and her greater sophistication. The presence of popular culture and name-brand consumer items in the family home also suggests the influence of modern...
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