Why I Live at the P.O.
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Irreversibility of Isolation
In “Why I Live at the P.O.,” individuals feel isolated even within in the seemingly nurturing confines of the family, many of them taking refuge in silence. Shirley-T. is an all but mute presence; Sister accuses her of being unable to talk altogether. As on other Fourth of July holidays, Uncle Rondo has overconsumed his prescription medicine, preferring a comatose state to his shrill family. Stella-Rondo, despite the stifling heat, keeps her bedroom windows locked and shut, sealing herself off from the world around her. Sister believes that Papa-Daddy is deaf or intentionally ignoring those around him, because he removes himself from the proceedings, preferring the solitude of the hammock in the yard. When there isn’t isolating silence, characters isolate themselves within flagrant lying and miscommunication. For example, Stella-Rondo convinces Papa-Daddy that Sister insulted his beard and suggested that it be cut off, when Sister never made such assertions. The silence in the story is broken dramatically by the deafening sound of the firecrackers that Uncle Rondo throws onto the floor of Sister’s bedroom.
The family’s isolation gets more intense when Sister prepares to move out. The already insular group swears never to send or receive any mail, just to spite Sister. Without the radio, which Sister takes with her, the family has effectively cut off all contact with the outside world and are left with only their own dysfunctional group. Open and honest communication has proven to be an unreachable goal, so the family instead embraces an even more intense isolation. At the end of the story, when Sister announces that she’d cover her ears if Stella-Rondo tried to explain herself, she is suggesting that this trend of isolation will never reverse itself and instead get steadily worse.
The Easy Habit of Lying
For all the characters in “Why I Live at the P.O.,” lying and deliberate misrepresentations of the truth are easier modes of communication than honesty and openness. Rather than actually communicate, the family members lie, exaggerate, and deliberately misinterpret others’ intentions and remarks. This miscommunication all takes place in the family’s everyday conversations—no one needs an occasion or a reason to distort the truth. In place of rational exchanges, the family members embrace negativity, accusation, and suspicion, and such consistency suggests that this behavior has become habit.
Stella-Rondo exhibits the least amount of self-control when it comes to her need to lie, and Uncle Rondo and Papa-Daddy grow hostile to Sister because of Stella-Rondo’s meddling. Stella-Rondo has mastered the art of “uncommunication.” Meanwhile, Shirley-T. hovers in the gap between truth and deception. Stella-Rondo believes that if she merely states the fact that the little girl is adopted, despite her family resemblance, then it will be accepted and viewed as the truth. However, Stella-Rondo’s constant lying and manipulation render her claims doubtful—especially to Sister. The family members’ easy habit of lying makes every claim, no matter what it is, almost impossible to believe. However, lying is easier than communicating properly, which involves a degree of trust and honesty that proves too difficult for the family members to attain.
Repetition appears throughout “Why I Live at the P.O.,” contributing to characterization and underscoring the stasis of the family’s home life. Welty uses repetition in two ways. First, there is the sense of family history repeating itself. When Sister questions the validity of Stella-Rondo’s claim that Shirley-T. is adopted, Stella-Rondo forbids her from ever again mentioning Shirley-T.’s name. This gag order is mirrored later when Sister discusses the matter with Mama and makes a fleeting reference to Cousin Annie Flo, who lived in an unexplained state of denial her entire life. Upon hearing the name, Mama threatens to slap Sister for violating her order never to mention her cousin in her presence again. When confronted with difficult questions or situations, family members opt for total denial rather than attempting to sort things out.
Repetition also appears in the family’s gang mentality. Both Stella-Rondo and Mama exaggerate Sister’s words or claim that she’s made a mean-spirited observation, when in fact she’s done or said nothing wrong. Sister reacts by repeating how individual family members have “turned against” her. The family’s negative and cruel mode of interacting is deeply entrenched and shows no signs of ceasing. Ultimately, Welty’s repetition of actions and phrases helps dramatize the family’s stasis and suggests that the family’s rituals will persevere despite the grief they cause.
Denial is a powerful force that is deeply rooted in every member of Sister’s family. Rather than face difficult truths that could tarnish their vision of themselves and their lives, the family members opt to completely deny reality. They delude themselves and willingly go along with others’ self-delusions. Mama is among the most grievous offenders, willingly suspending her disbelief when Stella-Rondo claims that Shirley-T. is adopted. Determined to support whatever version of the truth is easiest or most palatable, she denies the obvious flaws in the claim—such as the fact that Shirley-T. very much resembles Stella-Rondo. The entire family exists in a state of constant denial and avoidance of the truth.
Although Sister portrays herself as the victim, she too is in denial about her own role in the family’s fraught relations. She paints everyone else as being crazy and deceitful but does her part to rile up her relatives, such as by pestering Stella-Rondo about Shirley-T.’s parentage and snidely claiming that she foresaw Stella-Rondo’s fate. She describes moving to the post office as a desperate move of self-preservation, but it’s actually a gesture that is as childish and dramatic as anything Stella-Rondo or Papa-Daddy would do. Furthermore, no matter how certain she is that she’s found happiness and peace, she is still actively involved in the family feud. She keeps track of which townspeople are with or against her, and she feels compelled to announce her happiness to the world. Sister is denying the reality that her short-term solution does nothing to resolve the problems she has with her family members.
Throughout the story, the radio represents the contentious or flawed communication between the family members. The radio was once a pawn in Sister and Stella-Rondo’s constant struggle to occupy the favored position in the family. When Stella-Rondo once broke a chain letter from Flanders Field, her angry uncle Rondo wrested control of the radio from her and gave it to Sister, an incident that Sister views as a major victory. When it comes time for her to move out of the house, she proudly seizes the radio, which replaces human contact when she isolates herself at the post office. By taking the radio, she also takes one of the only connections the family has to the world beyond their home. This removal represents a new low in the family’s communication problems.
The Post Office
For Sister, the post office represents both independence and entrapment. On one hand, it is an escape for Sister, a haven from her family. Her job as postmistress gives her a measure of independence, and it gives her a place to go to when her family life becomes intolerable. However, it is not a total retreat, and her move reveals how trapped she truly is within the long shadow of her family. For example, Sister got the position of postmistress only because of Papa-Daddy’s influence, so in one way she is escaping from her family to a place her family provided. Once settled at the post office, she is still actively involved with her family, even from afar. She monitors whose “side” other people are on and claims that she’ll never listen to anything Stella-Rondo has to say. But the more adamantly Sister proclaims her independence from her family, the more mired she proves herself to be. Without her family’s squabbling, Sister has nothing to rail against, and one wonders how she would identify herself apart from her family. She may long to escape her family, but the further she gets, the clearer her connection to them becomes.
Shirley-T. serves as a mirror that reflects the desires and fantasies of Mama and Stella-Rondo. Named after Shirley Temple, the curly-topped singing-and-dancing child star of the 1930s and 1940s, Shirley-T. seems to take on any identity that is fashioned for her. But in addition to her doll-like presence in the story, Shirley-T. also emerges as a symbol of the family’s ongoing pattern of miscommunication and animosity. After her tap-dance and vocal performance, the only other word she says, after Uncle Rondo gives her a nickel, is “Papa,” mistakenly referring to him as her father. And she is already learning from those around her the dysfunctional ways of the household. As Sister is about to leave, Shirley-T. sticks her tongue out at her, showing that she has absorbed the family’s mean-spirited attitude or at least become skilled at reflecting it.