Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Eudora Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O."

I have too many thoughts about this story, and they're all going in different direction, so bear with me.  I'll start with pickles--

"So I merely slammed the door behind me and went down and made some green-tomato pickle. Somebody had to do it."

If there was ever a phrase less likely to come out of the mouth of Shirley Temple or any other early American female film icon, I can't think of it.  The characters in "Why I Live at the P.O." are as far removed from Hollywood's depiction of women, young or old, as can be, and I can't help but wonder if this is part of Eudora Welty's motivation for making Shirley Temple play such a large roll in the minds of these characters. 

Again, we find working women set up against the cultural standard, and again we see how short the cultural standard falls.  This fiction, held up against that dominant fiction, comes to feel all the more real to me. 

This family is a family at war, and the references to the war in Europe (Flanders Field, "Uncle Rondo was in France," "Hear the radio? All the war news.") seem to heighten our awareness of the domestic battle and perhaps allow us to see it metaphorically.  The date (Fourth of July) and the narrator's government job at the post office might also suggest a link between their domestic battle to larger domestic battles in the country as a whole--where do I want to go with this connection?  Isolationism?  The impossibility thereof?  I don't think I'm stretching here--the ending of the story makes the connection too explicit--but what do we make of this character cutting herself off from family and going to live in a government building?  Something to ponder.

While I'm on the topic of America and American values, this scene

So I hope to tell you I marched in and got that radio, and they could of all bit a nail in two, especially Stella-Rondo, that it used to belong to, and she well knew she couldn't get it back, I'd sue for it like a shot. And I very politely took the sewing-machine motor I helped pay the most on to give Mama for Christmas back in 1929, and a good big calendar, with the first-aid remedies on it. The thermometer and the Hawaiian ukulele certainly were rightfully mine, and I stood on the step-ladder and got all my watermelon-rind preserves and every fruit and vegetable I'd put up, every jar. Then I began to pull the tacks out of the bluebird wall vases on the archway to the dining room.

recalls one of my favorite movies of all time--the final moments of Steve Martin's The Jerk:

Well I'm gonna to go then. And I don't need any of this. I don't need this stuff, and I don't need you. I don't need anything except this.  [picks up an ashtray] And that's it and that's the only thing I need, is this. I don't need this or this. Just this ashtray. And this paddle game, the ashtray and the paddle game and that's all I need. And this remote control. The ashtray, the paddle game, and the remote control, and that's all I need. And these matches. The ashtray, and these matches, and the remote control and the paddle ball. And this lamp. The ashtray, this paddle game and the remote control and the lamp and that's all I need. And that's all I need too. I don't need one other thing, not one - I need this. The paddle game, and the chair, and the remote control, and the matches, for sure. And this. And that's all I need. The ashtray, the remote control, the paddle game, this magazine and the chair. 

I've always thought this scene was a perfect commentary on America and our materialism.  We need our stuff.  I can't help but wonder if Welty is making a similar commentary.  The people here seem more concerned about stuff and the identity they get from the stuff (the way a beard or a pink robe or an adopted child makes one appear to others) than about their family members.  Stuff = ego, self-esteem.  If the quality of the stuff is called into question, it's treated as a slight against the person who possesses the stuff.  The boundary between who we are and what we own is so blurred, the possessors of the stuff, much less their relations, are unable to make a distinction between possessor and possessed.

So much to think about in this fun little story.

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