Shirley Jackson's short story "The Possibility of Evil" was published in the Saturday Evening Post on December 18, 1965. Although it did not gain the popularity or provoke the outrage that "The Lottery" did in 1948, "The Possibility of Evil" contains many of the elements seen throughout Jackson's writing: a Gothic house, intimations of depravity, and an unexpected turn in events or judgment.
On the surface, "The Possibility of Evil" is a simple story. Readers follow Miss Stangeworth, the story's main character, around town as she completes her daily routine. She is the matriarch of the town, and she acts the part. She knows everything about her town, and she proudly admits that she has never lived anywhere else during her seventy-odd years. As she stops to chat with other townspeople, she appears to be polite and caring.
Miss Stangeworth, however, is concerned about everyone she meets because something seems "wrong" with them. She feels it is her civic duty to stop evil from spreading in her town, so every day she mails anonymous letters to her neighbors to keep them on the alert. Unfortunately, the letters she sends are the very cause of the evil that she has been trying to battle: her malicious words provoke the behaviour she is guarding against. Miss Strangeworth never realizes her darkly ironic position, and when she is eventually discovered to be the source of the letters, she cannot understand why someone would do something as “evil” as destroying her prize roses.
Miss Strangeworth lives up indeed to her unusual name as the narrative unfolds, but the town itself remains unnamed. Because she wants to lend her stories a universal quality, Jackson rarely mentions where the action takes place in her work. The possibility of evil, Jackson implies, could happen anywhere.
Summary and Analysis
Shirley Jackson's "The Possibility of Evil" was published on December 18, 1965, in the Saturday Evening Post, a few months after her death. It won the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1966 for best mystery short story. Jackson's tale is a wonderful study into the nature of appearance versus reality. It also relies heavily on literary devices such as foreshadowing and irony.
Miss Strangeworth is the story's main character. In her seventies, she has spent her entire life in the town where she was born, believing her family is more responsible than any other for fostering the community to its current level of success. She takes pride in the part her grandfather played in the town's growth when he started a lumber mill. She also feels her family has not gotten enough credit: no statue, for example, has been erected in her family's honor. With this is mind, Miss Strangeworth has a strong sense of proprietary pride as she walks along and visits with her neighbors.
Miss Strangeworth takes particular care of her appearance. She never goes out in public without having attended to every detail of her hair and clothing. It is important that she appears proper in every way. She is extremely conscious of status. Even though she attended school with Tom Lewis, the town's storekeeper, after graduation Miss Strangeworth has referred to him only by his surname. Calling him "Tommy" is no longer appropriate, nor is their high school friendship.
As the story begins, Miss Strangeworth visits Lewis's grocery store to purchase a few items. She expects Mr. Lewis to know what she wants because it is Tuesday, and she always buys the same thing on Tuesdays. While there, she notices signs of worry on the faces of those she meets. She assesses the cause of each person's stress, making the reader aware that she knows a great deal about the personal lives of those in her community.
As Miss Strangeworth heads home, she meets Mrs. Crane, a new mother with her baby. Mrs. Crane is nervous about her infant, sharing worries with Miss Strangeworth that perhaps the baby is not developing quickly enough. Miss Strangeworth assures the mother that all is well, hinting that perhaps Mrs. Crane is expecting too much too soon from the little one.
They part ways and Miss Strangeworth returns home, passing her garden of lovely roses. Their fragrance fills the air, and she is very proud of them. The old woman goes inside and carries out her routine of putting away her purchases, pridefully noticing the lovely items in her home (including roses from her garden, placed in vases in several rooms).
Moving through the house, Miss Strangeworth goes to her desk and unlocks it. Ignoring the beautiful stationery with her name at the top, she selects colored paper from a cheap supply purchased at the newspaper shop. The colored sheets are used throughout the town for a variety of purposes, and the envelopes are often used to hold household odds and ends or even cookies for a lunchbox.
Miss Strangeworth ignores the beautiful gold pen on the desk and picks up a stubby, dull pencil. In childish print, on a pink sheet, she writes a note about people who should not have children, especially when the child they have is an idiot. Adela Strangeworth writes carefully so as to avoid mistakes. If and when this ever does occur, she takes the sheet to the kitchen and immediately burns it at the stove.
When she is finished, pleased with the results of her first note, she chooses a green page. This one is for Mrs. Harper and suggests that all her friends are laughing behind her back because her husband is having an affair and "the wife is always the last to know." She addresses a green envelope, and then a pink one for her first letter to the Cranes.
As the self-appointed guardian of her town, Miss Strangeworth feels it imperative to tell these "truths" to the members of her community. Of course, she "never concerned herself with facts." If it is possible that something is taking place that someone should be aware of, it is her duty to bring it to his or her attention.
She has already sent a note to Mr. Lewis that his grandson has...
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