Themes and Meanings
It is often difficult to discuss the theme of a comic story such as this one, for to explicate comedy too often puts one to the thankless task of explaining a joke. What makes “Why I Live at the P.O.” amusing, however, according to many readers (it is one of Welty’s best-known fictions) is that Sister is a comic example of the schizophrenia of obsession, that she thus becomes almost mechanical in her reactions to her persecution complex. The reader laughs at the story because the characters seem so obsessed with trivia; yet, as is typical of most comedy, there is something serious beneath the laughter: The reader despairs to think that people can be so obsessed with such petty matters.
Many of Welty’s fictional characters seem isolated in some way; this story is one in which the reader must discover the nature of that isolation. Thus, one might say that this story is about the reader’s gradual discovery of why Sister does live at the P.O., and that this reason goes beyond what Sister says, although what Sister says is all the reader really has. Indeed, the reader must analyze Sister’s situation as she herself describes it and develop a dual perspective: a sympathetic identification with Sister followed by a detached judgment of her actions and speech. The problem of the story is that of Sister, who is the kind of character who cannot do things herself, but instead must have someone else act out her own desires. In this story, it can be said that Sister is the thinking side of the self, while Stella-Rondo is the acting side. Thus, it is true when Sister says throughout the story that she does nothing and everything is Stella-Rondo’s fault, but at the same time the reader is right to suspect that everything that happens is Sister’s doing.
For example, it is Sister who first dates Mr. Whitaker, but it is Stella-Rondo who marries him and moves away from the family; Sister wants to do both but cannot act on her desires. According to Sister, Stella-Rondo turns the other members of the family against her, but what Stella-Rondo actually does is act out Sister’s feelings. Sister communicates everything in an oblique way, never expressing her feelings directly but always manipulating events and people diagonally through Stella-Rondo. Consequently, she can cause many events to occur yet disclaim responsibility for any of them. Thus, because Stella-Rondo is the objective side of Sister’s subjective self, it is inevitable that the more that Sister attempts to drive out Stella-Rondo, the more she herself is driven out.
Stella-Rondo is the female version of the biblical prodigal son returned. Sister desires to remain safe at home and manipulate the family from her position as dutiful daughter. Ironically, however, Stella-Rondo becomes the favorite when she returns, while Sister becomes the exile. The irony of the story is that although Sister spends the whole tale explaining why she lives at the P.O., she really does not know why. Although she talks throughout, no one listens to what she says, not even herself. No one listens to anyone else in this story, especially Sister. As she says in the last line, if Stella-Rondo should come to her and try to explain about her life with Mr. Whitaker, “I’d simply put my fingers in both my ears and refuse to listen.” In a metaphoric sense, Sister has told the entire story with her fingers in both her ears; that is, she cannot hear her story from the dual perspective that the reader can.
Individual and Family Identity
Welty’s use of names suggests the degree to which the members of the family in ‘‘Why I Live at the P.O.’’ define themselves in relation to one another. Mama and Papa-Daddy are given no proper names. Stella-Rondo is named after her uncle, and Sister has only a nickname, one that suggests that her entire identity is tied up in her relationship with Stella-Rondo. On the one hand, Sister is completely alienated from her family and their way of dealing with the...
(The entire section is 1,634 words.)