Rabindranath Tagore’s The Post Office is widely considered as a play of symbols, rather than a play of characters and incidents. However, unlike most symbolic plays, characters in The Post Office are not shadowy and featureless representing certain abstract ideas or feelings. Characters in the play are highly individualized ones breathing life in their own distinguished and dynamic ways. As the plot unfolds, some of the characters develop in the most unforeseeable manner. Some of the characters, however, are purely symbolic in nature; even their names serve symbolic purposes. Characterization in The Post Office, thus functions at both individual and symbolic levels.
The central protagonist of the play is Amal and the plot hovers around him. Amal is described as a “child angel endowed with the characteristic Tagorean qualities”. He wins over people through sheer gentleness and affection. He has a strong love of things and beings. He is essentially a lover of life. He is just a boy and is the compendium of all qualities which Tagore considered healthy. He is imaginative, adventurous, innocent, spontaneous, gentle, sympathetic, observant, curious and full of love. He identifies himself with everything around him. He is romantic enough to be a squirrel just as Keats would peek at pebble with a pigeon. He wins over people through sheer gentleness and affection, through sheer docility and submission. He has the capacity to bring out the best in the people whom he encounters.
The play deals with Amal’s tragic story of suffering and pain on the surface level. But a deeper analysis will reveal that Amal’s death is not at all a tragic one. Instead it is seen as union between human soul and the Supreme Being. Amal is an innocent boy who is tired of the suffering of his life. Therefore he is eager for deliverance from this earthly existence. It is an invitation to leave this world of pain and suffering and enter the world of eternal bliss.
Amal has the magical power and charm to transform for the better every character that comes in touch with him. A case in hand is the character of Madhav, Amal’s foster father. The opening of the play is very revealing. Madhav is very much concerned with Amal a sick child who is “so quiet with all his pain and sickness”. Madhav tells Gaffer how earning has become very significant for him after the arrival of the boy. He says “Formerly earning was a sort of passion with me; I simply couldn’t help working for money. Now, I make money, and as I know it is all for this dear boy, earning becomes a joy to me.”
The Dairyman who is rather irritated in the beginning gets closer to the boy and tells him that he has learnt the art of remaining himself happy by selling curds. The watchman expresses his warmth to the boy by telling him something about the gong and the town. The other peoples in the play love the boy. Even the village headman, the most negative character in the play, is changed by the magical power, and starts loving the boy towards the end.
Each character, like Amal, has a significant role to play in the inner drama of the soul waiting for deliverance. Watchman symbolizes time. That time is most powerful and waits for none is clearly stated by him: “Watchman: My gong sounds to tell people, Time waits for none but goes on forever.” Thus behind the apparent simplicity of the dialogue, deeper and profound meaning continues to flicker. Sudha who gathers flowers stands for sweetness and grace. Madhav solicits like a common man of prosperity. The Physician symbolizes bookish knowledge that prevents man to achieve wisdom and true knowledge. Even the wicked village Headman has his place in the rich drama of life standing for his obtrusive authority. Amal alone is an angelic creature, apparently passive but highly creative through his imaginative perception.
In The Post Office, characters come and go, but conflict that drives traditional western drama is unimportant. Instead, what holds our attention is the transformation of Amal. As he grows physically weaker he grows spiritually stronger, and, in the exquisite passage at the end, as he falls into an eternal sleep, we experience the world as his dream.