Both of Shirley Jackson's stories, "The Lottery" and "The Possibility of Evil" are about the drawbacks and disadvantages of small-town life. People in small towns are friendly. They all know each other. But this can be a disadvantage. They all have a peculiar small-town mentality. They know who goes to church and who doesn't, and they know which churches people go to. They are all very much class-conscious. They can all turn against one of their fellow citizens for a variety of reasons. If, for example, a man is a heavy drinker, or gets arrested, or beats his wife, everybody in town will know about it. Some people can't stand small-town life with its gossip, its prying, its pettiness, its peer pressure, and its self-appointed aristocrats and tyrants like Miss Strangeworth in "The Possibility of Evil." It is not pleasant for most of us to have everybody knowing everything about our personal affairs. But that is inescapable in really small towns, such as Shirley Jackson depicts in both "The Lottery" and "The Possibility of Evil." In "The Lottery," the total population is right around three hundred. We get the impression that the town in "The Possibility of Evil" is just about the same. She is really putting small towns under her microscope.
Shirley Jackson lived in San Francisco, a big, cosmopolitan, notoriously tolerant city. This is a clue that she preferred the anonymity of a big city to the enforced intimacy of a small town. Her two stories can be read as a critique of small-town people and small-town life. People in small towns all over America are becoming more sophisticated, and perhaps more liberal and more tolerant, in recent times because of the influence of television, movies, and computers, among other factors. There is probably no longer such a feeling of coziness and claustrophobia that made so many young Americans want to get way out of their hometowns as soon as they were old enough to escape to one of the major cities.
The anxieties of all of us, our worries, vexations, bothers, troubles, fears, exertions, and so on, are really concerned with someone else’s opinion....For the most part, our envy and hatred also spring from the same root.
Now it is obvious that our happiness, resting as it does mainly on peace of mind and contentment, could scarcely be better promoted than by limiting and moderating these motives to reasonable proportions that would possibly be a fiftieth of what they are at present, and thus by extracting from our flesh this thorn that is always causing us pain. Yet this is very difficult, for we are concerned with a natural and innate perversity. Tacitus says: “The thirst for fame is the last thing of all to be laid aside by wise men.” The only way to be rid of this universal folly is clearly to recognize it as such and for this purpose to realize how utterly false, perverse, erroneous, and absurd most of the opinions usually are in men’s minds, which are, therefore, in themselves not worth considering.