What do the roses symbolize in the short story "The Possibility of Evil" by Shirley Jackson?

In "The Possibility of Evil," the roses symbolize Miss Strangeworth's pride and sense of social and moral superiority.

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Miss Strangeworth takes great pride in her roses. Tourists sometimes admire the roses in her yard that were planted by her grandmother one hundred years ago. She won't let the tourists have them, and when it is time to gives flowers to the church, "Miss Strangeworth sent over a great basket of gladioli" instead. She keeps the red and pink and white roses all for herself, scattering them in bowls or vases all over the house. For Miss Strangeworth, "the perfume of roses meant home." According to Miss Strangeworth, the town is proud of her beautifully tended house and roses.

The roses are a symbol of Miss Strangeworth, her pride, her shallowness, and her narrowness—and her rot. Like her, they never the leave the town (Miss Strangeworth is proud she has never left the town for more than a day). They are outwardly beautiful, and they smell sweet, but they offer little of substance beyond their appearance. They represent Miss Strangeworth's pride in her ancestry and sense of superiority that she has been in the town longer than anyone else. They represent, too, her self-centeredness: she feels she is the only one who has a right to enjoy them. Above all, they represent the way all of Miss Strangeworth's pride and energy go into appearances: the beauty of her yard, the sparkle of her clean windows, and the outwardly sweet way she treats everyone in the town. All of this superficiality covers over the rot within Miss Strangeworth's soul. The roses cover her inward stench, as flowers do a corpse. When they are destroyed, the reality of who she has been is exposed.

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The roses symbolize Miss Strangeworth's sense of privilege and pride. Because they were planted by her grandmother, they represent a kind of inheritance, in the same way she feels ownership over the town itself, which, she thinks, would not be here were it not for her grandfather. This sense of ownership translates into a feeling of responsibility for emotional and moral health of everyone in the town. In this regard, they also symbolize her sense of superiority to other people.

Several details suggest Miss Strangeworth's fixation on the roses as a kind of emblem of her status within the town. For instance, she never allows anyone to take any roses. When they are cut, their use is reserved exclusively for her own house. In fact, there is a kind of fairy-tale quality to her house, which seems like a place out of time, filled with furniture and decorations left by her mother and grandmother. The roses and their scent mark the place as "home." In a way, like in a fairy tale, the roses seem to have an almost magical quality, as if it is the roses which account for Miss Strangeworth's place in the town.

In that sense, the roses function ironically. On the one hand, they are beautiful and have a lovely scent; on the other, as a symbol of pride, they represent the ugliness of Miss Strangeworth's letters, which spread fear and misery throughout the town. When her identity as the letter writer is found out, and her roses are destroyed in retaliation, it is as if the secret, evil nature of the roses has been uncovered. The moral rectitude Miss Strangeworth values so much finds expression in the destruction of the very thing that represents her identity.

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In "The Possibility of Evil," the roses also symbolize Miss Strangeworth's deep and historic connection to the town. Planted by her grandmother, the roses have been on Pleasant Street as long as the Strangeworth family has. During that time, the roses have blossomed and grown, just like the town around them. This symbolic value also explains Miss Strangeworth's reluctance to let people pick the roses. For her, picking a rose and taking it away is tantamount to the Strangeworth family leaving Pleasant Street. It is, quite literally, unimaginable.

The roses also symbolize Miss Strangeworth's desire to create the perfect town. When she returns home from the grocery, for example, her neat and tidy rose-covered lawn is a welcome sight and symbolizes the idealized town she hopes to create by sending her poisoned pen letters.

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In The Possibility Of Evil, the roses symbolize the deceptiveness of outward appearances of beauty. A rose is a beautiful flower, but its thorns can cause both discomfort and injury. 

In the story, Miss Strangeworth is an elegant older lady with pretty dimples. She is easily recognizable 'with her dainty walk and her rustling skirts.' Her red, pink, and white roses are the talk of the town and the envy of tourists. She is a woman of deep tradition; Miss Strangeworth never gives her roses away, believing that the roses belong on Pleasant Street. The townspeople accord her deep respect and courtesy.

Yet, Miss Strangeworth masks a petty and spiteful spirit (thorns) behind her sophisticated and graceful manner (beauty of the rose). She secretly writes unkind letters to those who she believes are in need of her vindictive observations and her self-righteous advice.

The Roman tradition of the Rosalia includes the practice of offering roses to the deceased (who are viewed as the protectors of homes). Similarly, the imagery of Miss Strangeworth's preoccupation with her roses and her town is apt; she imagines herself the spiritual conscience and the preserver of good moral order in her town. The fact that her maliciously written messages on nondescript colored paper (she does not utilize the elegant Strangeworth stationary for these missives) may prove hurtful to her audience thoroughly escapes Miss Strangeworth's calculations.

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