The centerpiece of any analysis of Eudora Welty's short story, "Why I Live at the P.O.” must begin with the assertion by the protagonist known only as Sister that she is happy. Welty’s story is an exercise in literary irony and that assertion—like so many others that Sister makes—is not necessarily as straightforward as it may seem. To fully appreciate everything else at work in “Why I Live at the P.O.” requires to reader to pay especially close attention to the distance between the text that Sister provides on the surface and subtext that is bubbling beneath that pleasant veneer.
The irony of the short story is only revealed to the reader by appreciating Welty’s confident and assured control of point of view. What we learn by reader this story, we learn through the very subjective and occasionally unreliable lens of Sister’s perspective. The basis of that unreliability may stem from her lifelong conflict of growing up among a family of idiosyncratic personalities who are not always keen about treating her according to her needs and desires. Living within an environment where everyone readily treats others as they see fit, the longing for happiness in Sister becomes inextricably tied to the longing for distance between Sister and her family.
As you read Sister’s recounting of events that lead to the conclusion that she is a victim of bullying and persecution, then, it is well worth remembering that you are only getting her side of the story. Closer scrutiny of the subtext reveals Welty’s mastery of point of view. Is Sister really so victimized? Or is Sister exhibiting signs of paranoia? Perhaps both? The account of how Stella-Rondo engages in explicit acts of oppressing Sister that inexorably bring all the other family members—as well as unrelated townsfolk--in league with Stella-Rondo may well leave some readers convinced of her victimization. Or it may leave convinced that Sister is genuinely suffering from a paranoid personality disorder.
Welty’s genius is displayed by the possibility of a third option: the ironic establishment through Sister’s attacks against others that the cause of his victimization may actually result from her own lack of consideration for the feelings of others.
Which is not to suggest in any way that Sister’s point of view is delusional. A close reading can confirm that Sister is the victim of harassment at the hands of Stella-Rondo and other family members, but that close reading must take into account that Sister is the only one submitting testimony. Whether Sister’s account of this harassment is entirely true, partially true or a complete fabrication matters less than the fact that Sister does seem to be convinced it is all true. By choosing to relate the events of “Why I Live at the P.O.” completely through Sister’s consciousness, Welty actually manages to make a mystery out of this little slice of southern fried life. While it is impossible to discount everything that Sister claims, it is equally unlikely that she is merely suffering from some sort of psychosis. After all, “Why I Live at the P.O.” is remarkably funny and that humor is not the kind that you typically find in stories about the kind of mental illness that would be required of Sister was merely suffering from extreme paranoia.
An essential clue to solving the mystery of how much truth is to be found in Sister’s account is the character of Shirley-T. Unless this character is merely a total figment of Sister’s imagination—and there is absolutely no reason to believe that is the case—then the rather cryptic circumstances surrounding Shirley-T’s “adoption” from a family no one else has ever heard of before does indicate that Sister may have a very good reason for laying all the blame for tension in the house at Stella-Rondo’s feet.
Sister may be paranoid about just what is behind Stella-Rondo’s return, but as they say: just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. In light of the mysterious origin of Shirley-T, Sister’s accusations about Stella-Rondo stealing Mr. Whitaker away from her hardly seem to be paranoid delusions. On the other hand, once it becomes apparent that Sister’s sense of persecution has moved outside the house and beyond her family to embrace others living within the P.O. district, the true extent of the irony of Sister’s assertion that she is happy becomes impossible to misinterpret.