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Course 7—Study Guide

Why I Live at the P.O.
by Eudora Welty (1906-2001)


Commentary
course7-book Realism draws its observations from all social strata, high and low. Some writers, like Eudora Welty, seek out areas of life traditionally overlooked by the arts; they celebrate colloquial speech in their dialogue.

This story is a hoot: Welty shows us the small-mindedness, hilarious but often cruel, of a parochial, Mississippi family. The older daughter, Sister, narrates the story in high-dudgeon, giving us an intimate, first-hand view into the dynamics of her strange family.

But be careful. Welty is having fun with us: she inverts the rules, reversing our expectations. We readers typically identify with the narrator, but in this story we are not sure we can trust Sister to tell us the truth. At some point, we begin to distance ourselves from her version of reality.

In fact, Sister is the poster child for "unreliable narrator," a narrator that can't be trusted to tell the truth.


Consider:
1. On a second read, the first five words of the story ring hollow. Sister’s "I was getting along fine" reveals a defensiveness about the fact that her familial relationships were not all that "fine," even before Stella Ronda barged in to ruin things.


2. It is easy to dislike Stella Rondo—which builds our sympathy for poor Sister, who slaves over a hot stove (she tells us so twice). A prettier, younger sister running off with her older sister’s boyfriend, then returning home in triumph is classic literary fare (Pride and Prejudice?)—and we readers fall for it. At first.


3.We become increasingly uncomfortable at Sister’s hostility toward an innocent two-year-old child. Even so, Sister makes us laugh with her hilarious assertion that the girl toddler is the "spit image" of Pappa-Daddy without his beard and in fact resembles Mr. Whitaker, too. (Sister is insinuating that Stella Rondo was pregnant before she got married.)


4. Complaint after complaint piles up as Sister undermines every character in the story. She speaks to us directly, undercutting other characters' comments with her own version of truth. She’s determined to win us over to her side … because "the whole entire house [is] on Stella Rondo’s side and has turned against me."


5. Sister’s anger is so over-the-top that she becomes comical, especially as she grabs one item after another—even down to plants in the garden—to carry with her to her new digs in the post office. Her selfishness and vindictiveness become only too apparent to readers.

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