person's head surrounded by envelopes connected by a rose vine that spirals into the person's brain and at the other end blooms into a rose surrounded by lost petals

The Possibility of Evil

by Shirley Jackson

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Describe the setting of the story "The Possibility of Evil" by making reference to three details about the time and place.

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The setting of Shirley Jackson's story is one that suggests Gothic elements, as there is a town that seems lost in time as it is watched over by Miss Adela Strangeworth, a strange woman, indeed, who feels she must protect the town from evil.

1. Jackson gives no name to this town, thus allowing readers to surmise that it could be someplace they may even know. All that is named is Pleasant Street on which the Strangeworth home is located and Main Street where the grocery store is, and by these lines which also hint at something sinister and unusual,

The town where she lived had to be kept clean and sweet, but people everywhere were lustful and evil and degraded, and needed to be watched; the world  was so large, and there was only one Strangeworth left in it. 

2. Neither is there any particular time setting or date given, only suggestions of possibly being in the early twentieth century because Miss Strangeworth is described as 

Walking down Main Street on a summer morning,Miss Strangeworth had to stop every minute or so to say good morning to someone or to ask after someone’s health. When she came into the grocery, half a dozen people turned away from the shelves and counters to wave at her or call out good morning.

She also walks to the new post office in town.

The story takes place in twenty-four hours as Miss Strangeworth goes to the market in the morning, mails her letters in the evening, and receives her newspaper and mail the next morning:

Miss Strangeworth awakened the next morning with a feeling of intense happiness and, for a minute, wondered why, and then remembered that this morning three people would open her letters.

3. The beautiful roses in the front lawn of Miss Strangeworth's home on Pleasant Street act as deceptors to the meaning of the story. For, while they present a lovely picture of grace and decorum, they hide the strange nature of the occupant of the home, who will allow no tourists to take any roses from her yard.

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Much as in Sinclair Lewis's Main Street, a novel about a small town in which ingrown mores and a stodgy complacency lead the citizens' resistance to change as they feel that tradition must be upheld, Miss Strangeworth, a "Strangeworth of Pleasant Street," feels herself the matriarch of her town, one she has only left for one day out of her entire seventy-one years.

As the self-declared matriarch, Miss Strangeworth feels herself in charge of upholding the morality of her town and preventing evil from taking hold. In this effort, she seeks to prevent the town from changing by writing surreptitious letters to anyone who transgresses. 

Miss Strangeworth never concerned herself with facts; her letters all dealt with the more negotiable stuff of suspicion.

Now, these details are mentioned because they are symbolized by details of the physical setting of Jackson's Gothic tale and well as the time in which it is lost.

  • Physical setting, the Place

Detail No. 1 -

There is an artificiality to the town:

The sun was shining, the air was fresh and clear after the night’s heavy rain, and everything in Miss Strangeworth’s little town looked washed and bright.

Miss Strangeworth desires her town to be picture perfect in both physical appearance and in its moral behavior. As support for this desire of the town's matriarch, the reader may consider this passage:

The town where she lived had to be kept clean and sweet, but people everywhere were lustful and evil and degraded and needed to be watched.

Detail No. 2 - 

Miss Strangeworth has a beautiful rose garden, but she never allows any tourists to have the roses. 

Miss Strangeworth never gave away any of her roses, although the tourists often asked her. The roses belonged on Pleasant Street, and it bothered Miss Strangeworth to think of people wanting to carry them away, to take them into strange towns and down strange streets….

Instead, Miss Strangeworth places "a bowl of her red roses on the low table before the window, and the room was full of their scent" for her own selfish delight.

  • Time in the setting

Detail No. 3

While no particular year is indicated, the reader can surmise that the time of Jackson's narrative is, perhaps, around the turn of the century; that is, the early twentieth century. Before the "Roaring Twenties," the moral climate of America was rather Puritanical; so the seventy-one-year-old Miss Strangeworth has probably been brought up in the Victorian Age, one of strict moral directives, especially for women; that she has never married suggests her prudishness, as well. Certainly, her attitudes reflect such a time period:

So much evil. Even in a charming town like this one, there still was so much evil in people.

Ironically, many of those who adhered so strictly to Victorian principles became a bit perverse in their enthusiasm to enforce their morals upon others. This perversity exhibits itself in Miss Strangeworth's clandestine letter writing; for, while in her self-righteousness she feels that she is setting others upon the moral path, instead she effects anxiety and distrust.  Furthermore, the recognition of her sanctimonious perversity comes to her in the note on green paper, much like the pink paper which she, like "everyone in town bought... and used it for odd, informal notes...." Like her notes, it is insinuating and destructive, "Look out at what used to be your roses."

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Details of the setting put this story, published in 1965, in the world of the 1940s or 1950s. (Even if Jackson meant the story to take place in the 1960s, she is indicating that the town has a mindset and way of life of an earlier era.) First, not only does Mrs. Strangeworth walk, rather than drive, to her grocery, it is an old-fashioned market where people stand in line and place an order with the grocer who then goes and gets the goods.

By the late 1940s, this method was being replaced by the modern grocery store where a shopper pushing around a cart would select his or her own items from shelves. By the 1960s, this full service form of grocery shopping would have been a quaint throwback to a former era. A second indicator of an earlier era is that Mrs. Crane's baby is not in a stroller but in a carriage with a "lace-edged carriage cover."

Moving beyond time, there are many references that show this story is set in a small town (beyond Miss Strangeworth referring to it as a "little town"). As mentioned above, people can walk to Main Street to shop. Further, everyone knows everyone and greets each other by name, as would be typical of a small town. Mrs. Strangeworth has a pretty garden full of roses, as would also be indicative of a small town setting.

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There are two primary settings that impact the development Jackson's "The Possibility of Evil." One of these setting is the small town where the story takes place.  It is universal in scope, never being identified by specific name. This setting of the town impacts the story in a couple of ways. The first is that it helps to establish the world in which Mrs. Strangeworth lives.  It is a world that she has lived in all her life.  As the town looked "washed and bright," it is clear that her identity is linked to the town, as "she had never spent more than a day outside this town in all her long life."  The town is what enables the dramatic narrative to take place.  As Mrs. Strangeworth walks about the town, the people she meets become the subject of her notes.  It is the town's setting that helps to drive her desire to eliminate the "possibility of evil" through notifying people of the elements that she deems sinister in their worlds.  In this way, the setting of the town impacts the story.  The people she meets in the town, in the form of her desire to challenge the vision of evil in the world around her represent her primary motivation:

The town where she  lived had to be kept clean and sweet, but people everywhere were lustful and  evil and degraded, and needed to be watched; the world was so large, and there  was only one Strangeworth left in it.

It is in this manner where the town as a setting helps to impact the story.

The other setting that impacts the plot is Mrs. Strangeworth's home itself. This is where Mrs. Strangeworth cultivates her roses, elements that are precious to her identity and sense of self in the world.  It is also where Mrs. Strangeworth cultivates her second pride, her ability to write the letters that are the means through which she confronts the perceived evil in the world, in the form of the letters.  Jackson describes the world of Mrs. Strangeworth's home as its own essential setting:

The perfume of roses  meant home, and home meant the Strangeworth House on Pleasant Street. Miss  Strangeworth stopped at her own front gate, as she always did, and looked with  deep pleasure at her house, with the red and pink and white roses massed along the narrow lawn, and the rambler going up along the porch; and the neat, unbelievably trim lines of the house itself, with its slimness and its washed white  look….

Jackson makes Mrs. Strangeworth's home as having a significant impact on the setting.  It is a reminder of the "washed" manner in which Mrs. Strangeworth approaches evil and is also the immediate world where she defends her other "prized possession" of the town, itself.  The world of Main Street, where she encounters the different citizens in the town, and her home are settings that define her actions.  Through the interactions in one, she manifests their reality in the other.  The letters that are composed about the town are done so in her home, at her "narrow desk," and with her stationery for the letters.  It is here in which both the town and her home are critical settings to the story.

Both settings represents the individual's desire to appropriate reality in accordance to their own subjectivity.  The internal frame of reference that Mrs. Strangeworth possesses is possible only through the small town and her home, both elements that define the story's trajectory. Jackson develops both settings as reflective of the mind of Mrs. Strangeworth.  It is a consciousness that cannot fathom the perceived presence of evil and cruelty that has come to infect both by the end of the story.  Both the town and her home help to develop the limits of evil and the extent to which its reach is felt in the modern individual. 

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