Essay on Welty Story
Eudora Welty's "Why I Live at The P.O."
by D.K. Pritchett
If taken at face value, the characters in "Why I Live at the P.O." present a bleak family portrait: a spiteful woman who leaves her family over a silly quarrel and a family that reciprocates by encouraging the rift. Rather than dwell on their apparent spitefulness, though, readers should be prepared to take Welty's characters with a grain of salt. The author leaves many clues to effect this interpretation.
Life in China Grove, Mississippi, is indeed banal, but Welty doesn't dwell on its dreariness. Instead she paints an amusing picture of a family squabble. The story is relayed through Sister, whose version of events is inaccurate. The reader must be prepared to doubt Sister's literal statements. Only by reading between the lines of what Sister says can one grasp Welty's ironic intent. For instance, Sister tells us that Mama believes Shirley-T. is adopted. Actually, Mama believes no such thing, despite her own insistence to the contrary. When Stella-Rondo proclaims, "Why, Mama, Shirley-T.'s adopted, I can prove it," Mama quickly asks, "How?" (46). Again, when Sister wonders if the child can talk, Mama remembers that Joe Whitaker drank. "I believed to my soul he drank chemicals" (51). It is clear that Shirley-T.'s parentage is not in question. Mama only professes to believe Stella-Rondo.
Likewise, the fight that splits the town is a farce--little more than rural entertainment to the inhabitants of China Grove. Sister's insistence that she has left her family forever is highly suspect. It is doubtful that she will stay at the P.O. for long. Remember, she has "lived" there for only one week--hardly enough time to call it home. This feud is still fresh. Bickering is commonplace in Sister's family. No-one takes Sister's tirades seriously, hence Uncle Rondo's sarcastic offer of his army cot, which Sister accepts.
The key to the story is Sister's secret scheme in creating the ruckus. In spite of her frequent comments to justify her own behavior, as narrator she unintentionally lets slip her true motive: curiosity over the sleazy details of her sister's life with Mr. Whitaker. Stella-Rondo's refusal to oblige this curiosity is at the root of Sister's grudge. Sibling rivalry lies at the bottom of this rift. The underlying emotion is envy. Sister's vanity was wounded when Stella-Rondo captured Mr. Whitaker, who was no great prize judging by Sister's own description of him as a pop-eyed photographer whose single attraction is his status as "the only man ever dropped down in China Grove" (54). Despite Sister's intimation that she knew him well, she and Mr. W. never even made it to first-name basis.
Joe Whitaker's great attraction for Sister now is as the subject of a coveted, tell-all chat with Stella-Rondo that will satisfy Sister's morbid curiosity. She is intriqued by Shirley-T.'s apparently pre-marital conception and by Stella-Rondo's flesh-colored kimono, "all cut on the bias, like something Mr. Whitaker probably thought was gorgeous" (48). Sister reiterates the cause of her dissatisfaction. Stella-Rondo has come home, "giving no rhyme nor reason whatsoever for [her] separation and no explanation for the presence of that child..." (54).
No doubt Stella-Rondo fully appreciates her own mystique as both temptress and tragical lover. She drops Sister some tidbits about Mr. Whitaker's practice of photographing her in the kimono, and her own nervousness in having to hang up her negligee for all to see. Such indiscretions on her part are calculated to tantalize. She wants to pique Sister's curiosity.
It is unlikely that the quarrel will endure. Talkative Sister surely cannot hold out long sans audience. The family will miss its chief cook. Stella-Rondo eventually must seek out Sister as the purveyor of letters from the estranged Mr. Whitaker. This is what Sister craves. She vows that she will refuse her sister audience, should Stella-Rondo come to her "this minute, on bended knee, and attempt to explain the incidents of her life with Mr. Whitaker..." (56). Don't bet on it, though. Sister wouldn't miss that story for all the tea in China Grove.
~ Essay by D.K. Pritchett; first published on Southern Muse
LIST OF WORKS CITED
Welty, Eudora. Why I Live at the P.O. THE COLLECTED STORIES. 1983. San
Diego: Harcourt. 46-56.