Family as Theater in Eudora Welty's Why I Live at the P.O.
The outspoken narrator of Eudora Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O.," known to us only as "Sister," intends to convince us--the world at large--that her family has "turned against" her, led on by her sister, itella-Rondo. To escape her family, she explains, she has left home and now lives at the P.O., where she is postmistress. As she delivers her monologue, the narrator reveals more about herself than she intends. We see her as a self-centered young woman who enjoys picking fights and provoking melodramatic scenes in which she is the center of attention. Not too far into the story, we realize that others in the family behave as melodramatically as Sister does, and we begin to wonder why. The story's setting may provide the answer: In a small town in Mississippi, sometime after World War II and before television, entertainment is scarce. The members of this family cope with isolation and boredom by casting themselves in a continning melodrama, with each person stealing as many scenes as possible.
The first-person point of view is crucial to the theme of Welty's story. It is both quicker and funnier to show that the narrator is self-centered and melodramatic than it would be to tell it. Sister is definitely the star in the melodrama. She begins her tale with "I," and every event is made to revolve around herself, even her sister's marriage:
I was getting along fine with Mama, Papa-Daddy and Uncle Rondo until my sister Stella-Rondo just separated from her husband and came back home again. Mr. Whitaker! Of course I went with Mr. Whitaker first, when he first appeared here in China Grove, taking "Pose Yourself" photos, and Stella-Rondo broke us up. (Welty, "Why" 46)
Clearly the narrator's descriptions are exaggerated, and because of this we may be tempted to view her account of events with skepticism. On the whole, however, she seems to be right when she tells us that the entire family has "turned against" her. Much of the story is presented in dialogue that shows her family picking on her, and it is unlikely that Welty would have her completely fabricate the dialogue. In The Eye of the Story, Welty tells us that a story may mean what it says or it may mean more than it says, but "it is not all right, not in good faith, for things not to mean what they say" (160).
This is not to suggest that the narrator's perceptions of things are always on the mark. She is probably kidding herself when she announces, at the beginning of the story, that everything was going well until Stella-Rondo ...