Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” is a story demonstrating the effects of the family dynamic on the self image of an individual. The character of Sister is one that spends years in the shadow of her younger sister, enduring ridicule and insult from her family. The climax of the story occurs when she finally decides to remove herself from their grip, although she still feels their influence. “Why I Live at the P.O.” is a story of how the treatment from one’s family can directly and severely influence self esteem.
Sister has felt overshadowed by her sister, Stella-Rondo, since childhood. It is mentioned that Stella-Rondo is exactly twelve months to the day younger, and for that reason she is spoiled. It is apparent that she is favored, just in examining the names of the characters. The main character, the narrator of the story, is known only as Sister. This leads to the thought that her only identity in the family is as Stella-Rondo’s sister. It is obvious that Stella-Rondo is the namesake of Uncle Rondo, showing her preference in the family. Sister had gained the affections of Uncle Rondo over Stella-Rondo, but upon Stella-Rondo’s return home has lost again. At one point in the past, Uncle Rondo took a radio he had given Stella-Rondo, and gave it to Sister at a time of conflict with Stella-Rondo. The radio holds significance in the story, as Sister makes something of a show of removing it from the home to take with her to the P.O., as if to say, “remember this?”
The story begins with the statement from Sister, “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.” It is clear that Sister feels to have had an important role in the household, doing the cooking and such, and having Papa-Daddy help her to get the job at the P.O., both of which had brought forth a feeling of pride and belonging within the family. Stella-Rondo then returns home after her separation from Mr. Whitaker, and immediately does what is necessary to reclaim the spotlight, which is turning the family against Sister. The comment was made by Sister, that Shirley-T, Stella-Rondo’s child, allegedly adopted, would be the spitting-image of Papa-Daddy if he would cut off his beard. At the dinner table that evening, Stella-Rondo seized the opportunity to tell Papa-Daddy that Sister thought he should cut off his beard, which intensely angered Papa-Daddy. During the quarrel, Mama became swayed as well, saying, “stop right there” looking right at Sister. It took longer to influence Uncle-Rondo, who was poisoned with his prescription, but still it only took the insinuation that Sister had said he looked ridiculous in Stella-Rondo’s kimono.
Sister harbors an unresolved feeling of resentment toward Stella-Rondo for marrying Mr. Whitaker, when he had in fact been Sister’s boyfriend first, upon his initial appearance in China Grove, taking “Pose Yourself” photos, and he only transferred his affections to Stella-Rondo when she told him that Sister was one-sided, bigger on one side than the other. Her resentment grows when no one agrees with her that there is no way the child, Shirley-T, is adopted, given her strong resemblance to both Mr. Whitaker and the family. This would discredit Stella-Rondo, considering Shirley-T’s age, because it would mean that she had gotten pregnant before being married. At one point Sister nearly had her fulfillment, when trying to suggest that something was wrong with the child when no one had heard her speak, and Mama remembers that Joe Whitaker often drank like a fish, and drank chemicals. Sister again brought up the topic of Mr. Whitaker on a few occasions as she packed her belongings preparing to leave for the P.O., bringing forth conniption fits from Stella-Rondo. The story concluded with Sister’s statement, “if Stella-Rondo should come to me this minute, on bended knees, and attempt to explain the incidents of her life with Mr. Whitaker, I’d simply put my fingers in both my ears and refuse to listen.”
The portrayal of home life in “Why I Live at the P.O.” paints a picture of the damage that can be done to one’s feelings of self worth in reaction to the sense of belonging in family. Sister is angry that Stella-Rondo returned home, no matter how much satisfaction she may feel in response to Stella-Rondo’s separation from Mr. Whitaker; it seems that no matter who Stella-Rondo has the attention of, it had belonged to Sister for a short time at least. Although Sister makes a bold statement of how happy she is living at the P.O., it is glaringly obvious that she is deeply wounded and anxiously awaiting apology, and desperately hoping that she is soon missed and asked to come home.
Welty, Eudora. “Why I Live at the P.O.”. Contemporary American Short Stories.
Ed. Douglas and Sylvia Angus. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1967 (44-58)