Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Possibility of Evil” presents as its main character the 71-year-old figure of Miss Adela Strangeworth, whose name, when combined with Jackson’s body of work and reputation for disturbing Gothic literature (“The Lottery” had been published in 1948, and The Haunting of Hill House in 1959), suggests a sense of impending intrigue and possibly worse. “The Possibility of Evil,” of course, is a very short story, so Jackson develops her character quickly, but with hints along the way that indicate that Miss Strangeworth is not the kindly old lady the opening paragraph suggests. That opening paragraph describes a happy, productive and friendly individual never too busy to greet strangers on the street:
Miss Adela Strangeworth stepped daintily along Main Street on her way to the grocery. 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 took deep breaths, and thought that there was nothing in the world like a fragrant summer day.
She knew everyone in town, of course; she was fond of telling strangers – tourists who sometimes passed through the town and stopped to admire Miss Strangeworth’s roses – that she had never spent more than a day outside this town in all her long life.”
As the story progresses, however, it becomes increasingly clear that the most important part of that opening is the specification of “strangers – tourists . . .” Miss Strangeworth, it appears, has a disquieting effect on those to whom she is well-acquainted. An example of dialogue indicating the kindly nature of Miss Strangeworth and the uncomfortable feeling her “friends” have in her company is provided in the following passage:
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.
‘And good morning to you, Mr. Lewis,’ Miss Strangeworth said at last…
‘Good morning,’ Mr. Lewis said, and added politely, ‘lovely day'.
Miss Strangeworth’s visit to the market begins the transition in Jackson’s story from one of merriment to one of dread. Her interactions with fellow townsfolk take on the appearance of forced cordiality on the part of those to whom she directs her remarks. Mr. Lewis, the grocer, is clearly uncomfortable in her presence, lending an air of irony to the story and its main character, as evident in this exchange:
Silently, Mr. Lewis assembled her order on the counter and waited. Miss Strangeworth looked at him curiously and then said, ‘It’s Tuesday, Mr. Lewis. You forgot to remind me.’
‘Did I? Sorry.’
‘Imagine your forgetting that I always buy my tea on Tuesday,’ Miss Strangeworth said gently. ‘A quarter pound of tea, please, Mr. Lewis.’
‘Is that all, Miss Strangeworth?’
‘Yes, thank you, Mr. Lewis. Such a lovely day, isn’t it?’
‘Lovely,’ Mr. Lewis said.
With the progression of “The Possibility of Evil,” the owner and occupant of “Strangeworth House on Pleasant Street” is revealed as the source of all of the town’s anxiety, partaking as she does in the dispatch of anonymous letters to these very same townsfolk intended to frighten and divide them in the service of ridding the world of evil. As Jackson has Miss Strangeworth consider her role in the world, “as long as evil existed unchecked in the world, it was Miss Strangeworth’s duty to keep her town alert to it.”