Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“Why I Live at the P.O.” is a monologue in which the narrator, whom the other characters call “Sister,” explains how she came to leave the family home in China Grove, Mississippi. In the process, she reveals her own character and a good many family secrets.
According to Sister, her life with her grandfather, her Uncle Rondo, and her mother had been harmonious until the Fourth of July holiday, when her younger sister, Stella-Rondo, left her husband and came home, bringing with her a two-year-old child named Shirley-T, who was supposedly adopted. Sister immediately made it clear that she did not believe that story. Stella-Rondo avenged herself that night by persuading their grandfather, “Papa-Daddy,” that Sister wanted him to cut off his beard. When Uncle Rondo got drunk and wrapped himself in Stella-Rondo’s kimono, Sister insists that she came to his defense. She also sees herself as the heroine of a confrontation with her mother. After Sister insisted that Stella-Rondo had given birth to Shirley-T and then mentioned a disgraced female relative, Mama slapped her. Sister lost her last ally when Stella-Rondo persuaded Uncle Rondo that Sister had made fun of him for wearing the kimono.
Defeated, Sister collected everything that she could possibly claim and moved to the post office. She comforts herself with the the knowledge that as long as her family members refuse to enter the post office, they will not get their mail.
“Why I Live at the P.O.” is funny because all the characters in the story, including the narrator, use warped logic to justify their irrational behavior. Sister’s down-to-earth language in describing her family is another source of humor, and the fact that Sister has her own agenda makes her comments even more amusing. It is hardly surprising that “Why I Live at the P.O.” has been called a comic masterpiece.
Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
This comic story is an extended dramatic monologue told by Sister to an unnamed visitor to the post office, where she now lives after having left her home because of the return of her sister Stella-Rondo. As the title suggests, the story is an apologia in which Sister attempts to explain why she has decided to live in the post office of the small town of China Grove, where she is postmistress. The first line of the story establishes the problem quite clearly: “I was getting along fine with Mama, Papa-Daddy and Uncle Rondo until my sister Stella-Rondo just separated from her husband and came back home again.” Ostensibly, Sister’s decision is a result of all of her family turning against her after the return of Stella-Rondo, who earlier ran off with a traveling photographer, who, to hear Sister tell it, was her own boyfriend before Stella-Rondo stole him from her.
What makes the story both comic and complex is that the reader hears only Sister’s side of the story. As she says, Stella-Rondo broke up her and Mr. Whitaker by telling him that she was one-sided. To this Sister, in her own twisted logic that dominates the story, replies, “Bigger on one side than the other, which is a deliberate falsehood: I’m the same. Stella-Rondo is exactly twelve months to the day younger than I am and for that reason she’s spoiled.” It is this petty and petulant point of view of Sister that makes “Why I Live at the P.O.” a tour de force of southern idiom,...
(The entire section is 597 words.)