Humor and pathos in the short stories of Eudora Welty: “A Worn Path” and “Why I live at the P.O.”
The stories of Eudora Welty, “A Worn Path” and “Why I live at the P.O.” are both tales of heroism in unexpected places. The protagonists are ordinary people, who might otherwise be overlooked, if Welty did not give them a voice in prose. “A Worn Path” is a serious story, about an old woman named Phoenix who regularly makes a long pilgrimage to the town doctor to obtain medicine for her grandson. The bent, old woman would go unnoticed in real life, but Welty makes it clear in the woman’s symbolic name that the compassion and determination of this grandmother is heroic and healing. “A Worn Path” is told in the third person, and is quietly tragic and hopeful, while “Why I live at the P.O.” is a raucous, funny story told in the first person. “Sister” says that she has made a pilgrimage of her own, to flee her bickering, crazy family and her nemesis in romance Stella-Rondo. Now Sister is living at the post office, so she can get find peace. In this story, Welty takes family in-fighting and elevates it to an epically humorous level.
Eudora Welty’s stories are all characterized by a highly detailed sense of place, perhaps because “Welty lived in her familial homes in Jackson for most of her ninety-two years” (Johnston 2005) However, this Southern author was much praised for “her radical experiments in subject and form” (Johnston 2005). Welty was noted for her humor and bringing to life the South in which she lived. Welty did spend many years of her youth traveling abroad, and was able to view local attitudes with a distanced as well as an affectionate eye.
The central protagonist of “A Worn Path” is African-American, and Welty’s dispassionate third-person narrative point-of-view is unsparing in her depiction of poverty in a Southern setting where blacks face discrimination. However, the old woman is shown as a woman of quiet greatness, indomitable in spirit, like the Phoenix for which she is named. Ironically, the old woman is far stronger than the dog that attacks her or the hunter who can challenge her with a gun: nothing is stronger than her will to provide medicine for her grandson.
“Why I live at the P.O.” is told in the first person, so its point-of-view is far more unreliable in character than “A Worn Path.” The story makes use of a single character’s limited point-of-view to derive humor from family conflicts and the narrator’s jealousy of Stella-Rondo. Sister’s tone is what makes her story unintentionally funny for the reader. The story’s irony is derived from her melodramatic view of her romantic escapades in a small, gossipy town. The tone of the story suggests none of the conflicts of the characters will have long-lasting consequences: these conflicts are a part of everyday family life.
While both Phoenix and Sister may be small-town residents, the setting of both stories shows the different nuances Welty can give to small-town life. A lack of medical care makes Phoenix’s life a constant trial, while Sister is constantly surrounded by people who observe one another, and use their observations as ammunition in petty family battles. Both stories show the different facets of small town life — victimization through hardship and loneliness in the case of Phoenix, and victimization through the inescapability of family relationships in Sister’s case.
The themes of Phoenix and Sister’s stories are primarily conveyed through Welty’s choice of point-of-view. Phoenix cannot tell her own story, because she does not see herself as heroic, only as a woman who is doing what she needs to do, so Welty selects a third-person narrator. Sister’s story, in contrast, is told in the first person, because she sees herself as heroic, even though her main problem is merely her romantic conflicts with Stella-Rondo.
However, as funny as Sister may be, Welty still gives her unintentional humor an epic quality, which is evident in the high-pitched emotional tone with which Sister narrates her life. Making epic tales out of small town life is part of Welty’s art. That is why she was able to find so much rich material for storytelling in her hometown: in small town life there are many comic and tragic heroes like Sister and Phoenix.
Johnston, Carole Anne. “Eudora Welty.” The Mississippi Writer’s Page. First published 1998.
Updated 2005. http://www.olemiss.edu/depts/english/ms-writers/dir/welty_eudora/
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