“The Possibility of Evil,” by Shirley Jackson, is a short story with great psychological depth. The author provides an astute study of a person with the classic traits of what today might be classified as a narcissistic personality disorder. Your question on how Miss Strangeworth uses her appearance to trick others goes to the very heart of the matter, as appearance forms the basis of the false self that she projects onto her community. By appearance, I refer not only to her well-groomed and tidy personal looks, but to the impression of herself that she cultivates, much as she does her famed roses.
Narcissistic personality disorder is marked by a false exterior, a grandiose sense of self, a projection onto others of one’s own bad traits, and a chilling lack of empathy. Let us have a look at how Miss Strangeworth goes about hiding these traits and how her false self is unmasked:
On the surface, Miss Strangeworth is a prim and proper lady of seventy-one who goes about town nicely dressed, exchanges pleasantries with those she meets, and keeps her house impeccably maintained and clean. She is “fond of telling strangers” that her family has lived in the town for a hundred years and that her “grandfather built the first house on Pleasant Street.” Her eyes would open “wide with the wonder of it” when she spoke of this. She sometimes even finds herself thinking that the whole town is “my town.” Inside her admirably kept house, which some tourists once mistook for a museum, she basks in the glory of days past.
The author’s hints of Miss Strangeworth’s grandiosity reach a higher level when we read that she makes a habit of telling tourists that the town once “wanted to put up a statue of Ethan Allen. But it should have been a statue of my grandfather.” The prodigious and luxuriant roses, planted by her grandmother’s own hands, attract attention, but “Miss Strangeworth never gave away any of her roses.”
The roses are the icing on the cake of Miss Strangeworth’s false self, which she creates not only through outward appearances, but through her speech, which does not match her real thoughts. When she goes out, she is really on a mission to glean the vulnerabilities of others—fears, insecurities, suspicions—so that she can hurt them later.
Miss Strangeworth actually finds pleasure in this activity, which culminates in the writing and sending of anonymous letters to the townsfolk. These letters go right to the heart of their deepest vulnerabilities and are meant to stir up trouble within families and among neighbors. After having sent three such letters the previous evening, “Miss Strangeworth awakened the next morning with a feeling of intense happiness…and remembered that this morning three people would open her letters.” Here we can see her chilling lack of empathy, for the contents of those letters are meant to destroy peace of mind and wreck families.
The author perfectly captures Miss Strangeworth’s grandiosity, sense of entitlement, and her projection onto others of the evil within herself in the following sentence: “There were so many wicked people in the world, and only one Strangeworth left in town.”
Her disorder is so deeply ingrained that she is incapable of self-reflection. When her authorship is discovered and she herself receives an anonymous letter in return, inviting her to look out at “what used to be” her roses, Miss Strangeworth begins to “cry silently for the wickedness of the world.”
You can read more about Narcissistic Personality Disorder on the Mayo Clinic’s website: