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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What are some examples of Miss Strangeworth being evil in "The Possibility of Evil"?

An example of Miss Strangeworth's evil in "The Possibility of Evil" can be seen in her letter to Mrs. Harper, in which she tells her that everyone's laughing behind her back because her husband's having an affair. What's evil about this is that Miss Strangeworth is deliberately trying to make someone suffer. Instead of trying to help Mrs. Harper, she's consciously making her life worse.

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Miss Strangeworth mainly reveals she is evil through the anonymous, poison pen letters she sends to her small town neighbors. They are filled with cruel statements and false insinuations. For instance, she writes in all caps to Helen Crane, who recently confided worries about her daughter:


These letters leave people in the town feeling worried and "grim":

Many people seemed disturbed recently, Miss Strangeworth thought.

Miss Strangeworth compounds her evil by being two-faced and hypocritical. She pretends to be kind and thoughtful. People confide in her because she seems sympathetic. Nobody suspects that she could possibly be the one sending the hateful, damaging letters.

Miss Strangeworth is evil, too, because her moral values are misplaced. She puts more emphasis on appearances than on compassion. For example, she is inordinately proud of her beautiful roses, and the beauty of her garden makes her feel superior to her neighbors. She also will rewrite her poison pen letters if the spacing is incorrect or she makes a mistake, because of the pride she takes in her neatness. She is an example of what the Bible describes as a person who is like a cup that is clean on the outside and dirty on the inside.

Finally, Miss Strangeworth is evil because she is blind to herself. Much of her evil comes from this flaw: she is obviously projecting onto others her own fears and vices because she can't stand the idea she is less than perfect or not superior to other people. A person who thinks they are holier than everyone else and can do no wrong is a dangerous soul who can do a great deal of damage.

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One could reasonably argue that the poison pen letters that Miss Strangeworth writes are not just nasty and mean-spirited, but downright evil in that they are designed to sow suspicion and set people at each other's throats.

Though Miss Strangeworth claims to be concerned with protecting the moral climate of the town, in actual fact, she constitutes its biggest threat. Far from encouraging people to live together in harmony, she actively seeks to create division, dissension, and mutual suspicion. By most people's standards, this would be regarded as evil.

A prime example of Miss Strangeworth's evil comes in the letter she writes to Mrs. Harper. In this poison-tipped epistle, she intimates that Mr. Harper is having an affair and that all of Mrs. Harper's friends are laughing at her behind her back.

If Miss Strangeworth really were concerned with the moral climate of the town, then she wouldn't write such letters. There's nothing remotely good about attacking someone who's on the wrong end of adultery. After all, Mrs. Harper hasn't done anything wrong here, so why should she be the one to be insulted in this way?

Here, as elsewhere, Miss Strangeworth's behavior is completely gratuitous. There's simply no need for her to write such an appalling letter....

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Far from improving the general moral climate of the town, far from doing good, her letter can only generate greater evil by making a bad situation much worse.

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From the onset of the story "The Possibility of Evil," it is clear that something is wrong in the town. Even though Miss Strangeworth lives on Pleasant Street and the day the story opens is beautiful and sunny, the characters in this tale appear worried and upset by something. As Miss Strangeworth makes her rounds around town, she notices that Mr. Lewis looks "worried" and that Mrs. Harper's "hand shook." In fact, many people have been "disturbed lately."

As the story progresses, the reader becomes aware that Miss Strangeworth has been writing anonymous letters stirring up the evil, darker side of human nature. Strangeworth believes that "people everywhere were lustful, evil, and degraded." Through her accusatory evil letters, she has turned the people of the town against each other. However, ironically, at the end of the story, the tables are turned. She receives a letter informing her about the destruction of her precious roses. Her belief in the wicked nature of people has been confirmed.

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To find examples of Miss Strangeworth being evil, look towards the end of the story when she is composing her next round of poison pen letters. Miss Strangeworth shows her darker side, for instance, by writing a letter to Mrs Crane which refers to their "idiot baby." Similarly, she also composes a letter to Mrs Harper in which she hints that Mr Harper is having an affair:

 "Is the wife really always the last one to know?"

These two examples are particularly evil because earlier in the story, Miss Strangeworth meets Mrs Crane and Mrs Harper in town and acts friendly and sympathetic towards them.

Finally, Miss Strangeworth composes another letter, this time to Mrs Foster who is due to have an operation. In the letter, Strangeworth suggests that doctors routinely make mistakes and that her nephew might encourage the doctor to do so: 

"Would Dr. Burns get his fee and a little extra from that nephew of yours?" 

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