Why I Live at the P.O. is probably Eudora Welty’s best-known and most anthologized short story. The story was first published in the Atlantic (1940) and appeared the following year in her first short story collection, A Curtain of Green and Other Stories. This humorous dramatic monologue is filled with the natural rhythm and idiom of southern speech, and the comedy is further enhanced by the characters’ quirky actions as described through the eyes of Sister.
Jealous of her younger sister, Sister is vexed when Stella-Rondo returns to China Grove after separating from the man she had earlier stolen away from Sister herself. To add insult to injury, Stella-Rondo has with her Shirley-T, a two-year-old “adopted child” whom the family has never heard about. Sister, convinced that Stella-Rondo is systematically turning the whole family against her, describes the events of a scorching Fourth of July that lead to her eventual removal to the back of the post office, where she works as postmistress.
For most readers, however, Sister is the classic unreliable narrator. We see the day’s events only from her point of view, and we gradually sense she has filtered them through her illusions. She tries too hard to convince us that everyone is against her, and the attacks she describes are ludicrously petty and illogical. Although the conflict occurs on Independence Day, the story’s imagery creates a sense of entrapment and suffocation. The windows of the small and crowded house are locked and the day is stiflingly hot. Ironically, even after she makes her escape to the post office, Sister is trapped and isolated in her post office window, telling passersby about her family’s injustice, prisoner of her own spite.
The story contains the evidence for an alternative reading that views Sister more sympathetically: Stella- Rondo apparently ran off with Sister’s gentleman friend and may very well be lying to the family about her marriage to Shirley-T’s father. In her flight to the post office, Sister achieves a room of her own and a peace of sorts. Whichever way the reader views this account of a day in the life of a family, Welty clearly intends the humorous tone with which she describes the inebriated Papa-Daddy, the petty family bickerings, and the parody of an American family on Independence Day.
Evans, Elizabeth. Eudora Welty. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981.
Whitaker, Elaine E. “Welty’s ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’ ” Explicator 50, no. 2 (Winter 1992): 115–117.