Why I Live at the P.O.
Analysis of Major Characters
Sister, the cynical, outraged narrator of “Why I Live at the P.O.,” is a complex mixture of sorely used scapegoat and self-deluded, unreliable narrator. She stands in the shadow of her younger sister, Stella-Rondo, whose return to the family home with her daughter, Shirley-T., dredges up Sister’s long-simmering jealousy and resentment. Her family seems unwilling to believe her word against Stella-Rondo’s, and Sister is frequently accused of saying things she did not say and doing things she did not do. When Uncle Rondo gets angry with her for making fun of his kimono, he tosses a pack of firecrackers into her bedroom. Sister’s position as the much-abused daughter seems clear. However, her unrelentingly dramatic commentary and insistence on operating at a constant fever pitch undermine her justified frustration. Because Sister is the narrator, every event in the story is tinged with her outraged disbelief, and she offers no real window into how she actually feels. The extremity of Sister’s narration damages her credibility.
Although no one in the family seems fully sane, Sister frequently seems as strange as the rest and participates in the criticism and alienation as much as anyone else. The jealousy that characterizes her relationship with Stella-Rondo, especially over the affections of Mr. Whitaker, brings out her own cruel streak. The fact that Stella-Rondo’s marriage has failed practically delights Sister, and she even taunts Stella-Rondo about Mr. Whitaker’s abandonment, saying, “I knew from the beginning he’d up and leave her.” She even goes so far as to mimic Shirley-T. and suggest that her young niece has a developmental disability. Sister seems determined to prove that Stella-Rondo has lied about the parentage of Shirley-T., not letting the matter go even when it is clear that Stella-Rondo will never admit that she’s right. Although from Sister’s perspective it appears she was driven out of her home to the post office, the record of her own transgressions suggests she had a hand in creating her fate.
When Stella-Rondo returns to the family fold for attention and support after the breakup of her marriage, she easily reclaims her position as the pampered favorite. Though Sister lobbies wildly for recognition and respect, Stella-Rondo is more skilled at garnering sympathy, and she easily brushes Sister aside to win the spotlight. She is used to having her own version of the truth accepted without question, and with the exception of Sister, the entire family swallows her claim that Shirley-T. is adopted. Stella-Rondo’s insistence on her superiority is remarkable in light of the circumstances that brought her home. She claims that she left Mr. Whitaker, but Sister is convinced the opposite is true: “He left her—you mark my words,” Sister says. Yet the truth is certainly something Stella-Rondo will do her best to conceal.
Stella-Rondo’s position as the object of praise and approval has hampered her maturity and personal development. Her life has been marked by impetuousness, impatience, and a lack of commitment. Sister remembers Stella-Rondo’s inability to follow through on collecting pearls for her Add-a-Pearl necklace when they were children. “She’s always had anything in the world she wanted and then she’d throw it away,” Sister says. Stella-Rondo’s current situation with Mr. Whitaker seems to follow that pattern, although it is unclear who “threw away” whom. Stella-Rondo’s spoiled position in the family and insistence on appearing perfect lead her to ignore difficult problems and deflect troubling questions. If Shirley-T. is not adopted, is Mr. Whitaker the father? Were he and Stella-Rondo intimate while he was dating Sister? Why did the family suddenly move to Illinois? No one poses these questions, although Sister surely considers them, and Stella-Rondo’s stubborn avoidance is part of what drives Sister to leave home.
Mama seems to set the precedent for the family’s miscommunication, rivalry, and disagreement. The hostility between Sister and Stella-Rondo has its roots in Mama’s own troubled relationships. When Stella-Rondo forbids Sister to speak Shirley-T.’s name, it echoes Mama’s forbidding of anyone to speak of her cousin. Furthermore, Mama easily perpetuates lies among the family members, even though, at times, she suspects or even knows the truth. For example, she reprimands Sister for suggesting that Shirley-T. is Stella-Rondo’s biological daughter, but she herself wonders how Stella-Rondo could possibly prove that Shirley-T. is adopted. Later, she links Shirley-T.’s silence and strange behavior to Mr. Whitaker’s consumption of chemicals, suggesting that she knows that Mr. Whitaker is, in fact, Shirley-T.’s biological father. Rather than not understanding the split between reality and fiction, Mama merely prefers one version over the other. She would rather believe that Stella-Rondo is virtuous than believe she is a girl who has had premarital sex. Mama’s desire to deny the truth ultimately proves more damaging to the family’s relationships than the truth itself would have been.