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The Possibility of Evil

by Shirley Jackson

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What is the mood in "The Possibility of Evil"?

At first, the mood in "The Possibility of Evil" is bright and happy. As the story progresses, however, the mood becomes rather sinister.

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The story begins on a clear summer's morning in what seems to be a quiet, peaceful town. We are told that the sun is shining and that the air is "fresh and clear." We are also told that, because it had rained the night before, everything now looks "washed and bright." As we follow the main character, Miss Strangeworth, we see her stop regularly to say good morning to her neighbors and ask after their health. Miss Strangeworth seems for the most part like a well-meaning and harmless old lady.

The mood of the story, at the beginning, thus seems bright and cheerful. It is not long, however, before the reader questions this seemingly happy mood. The grocer, for example, looks "worried" and "very tired indeed," and Mrs. Harper's hands shake as she opens her pocketbook, making Miss Strangeworth question "if she had been taking proper care of herself." Miss Strangeworth also remembers that

only yesterday the Stewarts’ fifteen-year-old Linda had run crying down her own front walk.

Through small, seemingly incidental descriptions like these, the reader begins to realize that there is something not quite right in this small town, and the bright, cheerful mood begins to look suspiciously like a facade hiding something sinister beneath.

Later in the story, these suspicions are confirmed as we learn that the elderly Miss Strangeworth spends her free time writing nasty letters to her neighbors. She writes one to Mrs. Harper, for example, which reads:


Miss Strangeworth writes these letters, anonymously, to deliberately upset and unsettle her neighbors, all of whom seem to think that she is a harmless, if rather prissy elderly lady. When we realize what Miss Strangeworth is doing, the mood of the story changes altogether from happy and bright to sinister and dark.

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An emotion like “happy” could be described with over-the-top feeling, as “exuberant” or with a more subdued connotation, as “content.” Likewise, the mood of a story can be identified through the specific word choices and literary devices a writer uses to create a definite and identifiable feeling in the reader throughout the story. The mood of a story can be somewhat subjective for individual readers. Yet, a close reading and a brief literary analysis of the writer’s specific word choices relative to the theme or central conflict of the story support mere opinion.

Specific words and phrases in Shirley Jackson’s “The Possibility of Evil” indicate a mood of foreboding. This mood begins in the title and continues throughout the narrative to an almost foregone conclusion. The word “evil” in the title immediately invokes the classic literary theme of a battle of good vs. evil. It invites the reader to contemplate how the nature of and perceptions of “evil” will be explored in the story.

The battle between good and evil plays out throughout the story in lines such as, “as long as evil existed unchecked in the world, it was Miss Strangeworth’s duty to keep her town alert to it.” Arguably, this line indicates the central conflict of the story in somewhat religious overtones. Miss Strangeworth is beyond the stereotypical town busybody. The character is portrayed as very judgmental and, in fact, hypocritical. Jackson skillfully sets up the reader to wonder and to contemplate the moral and ethical paradoxes evident in the character’s actions. Further, the phrase tempts readers to discover what will happen in the course of events relative to the character’s judgments. Again, Jackson’s skillful setup of the mood of the story can be described as foreboding.

The choice of the word “foreboding” to describe the mood of the story is largely subjective. However, by looking closely at words and phrases in the story that reveal Miss Strangeworth’s character, any adjective similar to “foreboding” will likely describe the mood of “The Possibility of Evil.”  ENotes includes several resources for literary analysis of the story. Happy reading!

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