Motivations of the main characters
Discovering characters’ motivations may be challenging in Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” because the reader sees the story from just one perspective: that of Sister, the main character. Sister is not truthful about her motivations even with herself, so she decides to run away from her family instead of trying to patch things up. However, there are some clues to how she feels. In the beginning, Sister says about Mr. Whitaker, her sister’s ex-husband, “Of course I went with Mr. Whitaker first, … and Stella-Rondo broke us up” (Welty 77). During the climax, Sister says to Stella-Rondo, “If you’re so smart, where’s Mr. Whitaker?” (Welty 85). Perhaps, she is not just trying to sting her sister but is genuinely blaming Stella-Rondo for having lost her husband.
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These quotes suggest that what the main character is feeling is jealousy. Sister says that Stella-Rondo “always had anything in the world she wanted and then she’d throw it away” (Welty 77), and she is probably still mad at her sister for marrying Mr. Whitaker. It is not clear from the story if Sister liked Mr. Whitaker, but it may not be that important: it is not about him, it is about the sibling rivalry and the way Stella-Rondo always has it her way. It should be said, however, that Sister does not act on her jealousy; at least, she is not trying to set the family against Stella-Rondo, but this is exactly what Stella-Rondo is doing. It can be concluded that Sister leaves the house not because she wants independence but because she is mad at her sister and her family for taking Stella-Rondo’s side, and she leaves to spite them.
Changes in the main character
From the very beginning, Sister says she “was getting along fine” (Welty 77) with her family until the arrival of her sister. Gradually, everyone is set against Sister because of Stella-Rondo’s intriguing and lying, but Sister does not deny her claims that Stella-Rondo is lying about her husband (Sister thinks that “[h]e left her” (Welty 85), not vice versa) and her child (Sister refuses to think that the girl is adopted). She stoically resists her sister’s intriguing and does not even confront her; when Stella-Rondo lies to their uncle that Sister said he looked like a fool (while it was Stella-Rondo who said that), Sister responds, “I didn’t say any such of a thing, … and I’m not saying who did, either” (Welty 83). However, something changes in Sister’s behavior by the end of the story.
It was her uncle’s evil joke (throwing firecrackers into her bedroom early in the morning) that made Sister make up her mind to leave, and she explains it with her being “terribly susceptible to noise” (Welty 83) and thus being too seriously affected by the incident. However, it can be argued that the transformation from an obedient daughter, granddaughter, and niece into a rebel is due to a more profound cause. She cannot stand the situation in which everyone refuses to see obvious things (Stella-Rondo’s daughter’s resemblance to Papa-Daddy) and takes her sister’s side, so she says, “If I have anything at all I have pride” (Welty 83) and leaves.
The character’s knowledge about himself/herself
Although the entire story is Sister’s perspective, readers can still notice that she is self-delusional. The main thing to which Sister does not confess—or perhaps which she does not know about—is the way she feels about her sister’s failed marriage. Sister is mad at her sister for lying in front of their family and setting everyone against her (and she has every right to be mad because Stella-Rondo is being mean and base), and she is mad at her family members for taking Stella-Rondo’s side (which is justified, too, because the family members are being unreasonable), but this is not what makes Sister move to the P.O.
After moving, Sister says, “But here I am, and here I’ll stay. I want the world to know I’m happy” (Welty 86). What she does not know, or what she refuses to admit is that she is bitter. She is not over the resentment she felt when Stella-Rondo broke up their relationship with Mr. Whitaker. It is important to understand this to gain insight into Sister’s behavior. She claims to be a victim but also thinks she is triumphant because she is freed from her abusive family. However, what she is doing is running away from her feelings.
Relation of the structure to the topic
In “Why I Live at the P.O.,” structure is crucial; its major component is that the entire story is told by the main character who provides descriptions, her thoughts, and the quotes from other characters. Moreover, Sister even talks to the reader in some parts of the short story, e.g. after Stella-Rondo accuses Sister of having said that their uncle looked like a fool, there is a short paragraph in the text that goes, “Do you remember who it was said that?” (Welty 83); this is Sister addressing herself to the reader directly. It is unclear whether the reader should trust the quotes of other characters, i.e. whether they are quotes or Sister’s paraphrasing, but there is still the feeling throughout the story that everything is shown from Sister’s perspective, and she is not trying to be objective.
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This structure allows the reader to recognize the difference between what Sister sees and what is happening. Readers understand that Sister is highly biased and can make their judgments about the story; moreover, readers can draw their conclusions about Sister herself and, specifically, her self-delusion. The author seems to hint at that, as she repeatedly quotes Sister says, “I draw my conclusions” (Welty 85, 86). Also, this structure allows looking inside the mechanism of self-victimization, i.e. analyzing how sister gradually engages in regarding herself as a victim of the circumstances and how she blames everyone around for being so unfair to her.
Words, symbols, and techniques contributed to the tone and aesthetics of the text
A major technique that a reader immediately notices is the use of language peculiar to the South in the 1930s. Welty intentionally uses unconventional grammar, such as “must of” (79) instead of “must’ve” or “would of” (82) instead of “would’ve.” This allows the reader to imagine a very authentic and candid picture; it almost makes the reader hear characters talk. Several things are used in the play as cultural symbols that help the reader identify the place and the time in which the story is happening. For example, there is a picture of Nelson Eddy in Stella-Rondo’s room, and it is mentioned that Stella-Rondo’s daughter ate a Milky Way while they were on their way to Mississippi.
Also, the author used several techniques to make the text more appealing in terms of emotions. For example, when told that Sister thinks he should cut off his beard, Papa-Daddy “l-a-y-s down his knife and fork” (Welty 78). This use of hyphens immediately makes the reader picture how slowly Sister’s grandfather is moving at this moment, and how scared she probably is. Another example is the way Welty spells the lyrics of the song that the little girl is singing: “OE’m Pop-OE the Sailor-r-r-r Ma-a-an!” (82), which is done to illustrate “the loudest Yankee voice [Sister] ever heard” (82). Also, it is notable how the author uses italics for emphasis; for example, when Sister says, “He left her” (Welty 85). All these techniques make the text more vivid and more appealing.
Symbols, colors, words significant in the text
Throughout the story, a reader can notice repeated references to food, and it can be argued that food is an important symbol. First of all, at the very beginning, Sister is cooking and complaining (not out loud) about having to “stretch two chickens over five people and a completely unexpected child” (Welty 78). It shows that, after her sister left, Sister is in charge of running the household, which she may think is unfair because, after all, she is older than her sister. This also brings up the point that Sister may be bitter about the fact that her younger sister got married before her. In a different part of the story, very distressed, Sister goes to the kitchen to make “some green-tomato pickle [because] [s]omebody had to do it” (Welty 80). Overall, it can be seen that it is mostly Sister who takes care of the household and everyone in the house although she also has a job.
When describing situations that are unfolding while she is cooking, Sister repeatedly says that she is standing “over the hot stove” (Welty 78, 82), which is also clearly a symbol of the hardship she is going through and the heat that is growing in the house. Finally, when packing her things, Sister takes her “watermelon-rind preserves and every fruit and vegetable [she’d] put up, every jar,” and when her mother protests, she replies, “I bought ’em and I’ll keep track of ’em … I’ll tack ’em up one on each side the post-office window, and you can see ’em when you come to ask me for your mail, if you’re so dead to see ’em” (Welty 84). It can be argued that, in many cultures, collecting food (of growing it), preparing it, and sharing it at a table is what makes a family; therefore, by taking food away from the house, Sister declares her rupture with the family in the most explicit way.
Relation of the text to any broad, human truths
I think the human truth that the short story relates to is that we are all biased and often fail to reflect on our behaviors when we are in the middle of a difficult situation. It can be argued that everyone in a story is being unreasonable (this is especially true because we see everything from just one person’s perspective), and, notably, Sister herself is not behaving particularly wisely. Facing pressures, unfairness, and even abuse—”‘I told you if you ever mentioned Annie Flo’s name I’d slap your face,’ says Mama, and slaps my face” (Welty 81)—Sister ultimately responds with aggressiveness and tries to deliberately hurt Stella-Rondo with her comments, although it might be wiser to resolve everything peacefully.
Another phenomenon that is widespread and can be considered a human truth is sibling rivalry. It is unclear why exactly Stella-Rondo is trying so hard to set everybody against Sister. It may have something to do with her unresolved anger from her failed marriage and the fact that Sister is the only person who refuses to believe in Stella-Rondo’s lies.
Finally, it is noteworthy that, while protagonists are usually mostly positive characters, this is not the case for Sister. As it was mentioned above, she is being unreasonable in a certain sense. In general, she behaves much more decently and honestly than her sister, but she still does questionable things. For example, she tells her mother that something may be wrong with Stella-Rondo’s daughter: “‘Mama,’ I say, ‘can that child talk? … I wonder if that child can be—you know—in any way? … This is the way she looks,’ I say, and I looked like this” (Welty 81). Maybe Sister is just genuinely concerned about her niece, or she is doing it to spite her sister.
The reader’s responses to the text
My first reaction to the text is that I find it truly funny. This family is insane, and each of them is weird in their way. Papa-Daddy claims that he has been growing his beard since he was 15, Uncle Rondo wears a pink kimono and gets very offended when his look is criticized, and Sister, when trying to deny Stella-Rondo’s lies, says, “Stella-Rondo sat there and made that up while she was eating breast of chicken” (Welty 78). Everything is happening so fast that the whole situation remembers a farce.
However, the story is not simply comical. It also made me think about how relationships among the closest people should be managed, and it made me feel sorry for the entire family, and even Stella-Rondo despite her terrible lies about her sister. On an aesthetic level, I feel disturbed, on the one hand, because a family like this is a disaster, and think it is horrible how dishonest they are to each other. On the other hand, I also feel an aesthetic pleasure because the author managed to describe everything so vividly that the picture, despite depicting some repelling things, is also beautiful and appealing.
Relation of the text to global or societal issues
One of the societal issues brought up in the text is the position of women in the conservative Southern society. Stella-Rondo denies that her husband left her and claims that she left him; moreover, she denies having given birth to the little girl she brought to the house, claims that the girl is adopted, and asks her sister “to make no future reference to [her] adopted child whatsoever” (Welty 78). Stella-Rondo is probably afraid that she will have no future if everyone finds out that her husband left her, and she is a single mother. Despite the terrible things Stella-Rondo does to her sister, her position deserves compassion.
Another societal issue illustrated in the short story is the phenomenon of dysfunctional families. The older members neglect the elder daughter, and the younger daughter keeps lying to everyone. They almost charge at each other because of the silliest reasons; they can use very strong words, such as when Papa-Daddy says, “Hussy!” (Welty 78) to Sister, they can be cruel, and they can be violent. It is important because, until today, many people live in dysfunctional families, which can be very harmful, and the phenomenon should not only be studied but also described in fiction so that it emotionally appeals to readers and helps them gain insight into how misunderstandings and conflicts in families can be avoided or mitigated.
Welty, Eudora. “Why I Live at the P.O.” An Introduction to Fiction, edited by X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, 9th ed., Longman, 2004, pp. 77-86.