What lessons does "The Possibility of Evil" teach about human nature?

Expert Answers
amarang9 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One lesson the story teaches is that (some) people are duplicitous. In other words, they are "two-faced." Miss Strangeworth is kind to everyone's face but as soon as they are out of earshot, she is critical and judgmental. She plays the role of the amiable neighbor in public. But in private, she is condescending and, at times, even spiteful and hateful towards others. 

This duplicity shows Miss Strangeworth's feelings of superiority. She feels that it is her duty to send these anonymous letters. She thinks that she is somehow more righteous, ethical, and logical and therefore in a position to judge other people. She has a warped Messianic complex. The fact that she does this anonymously shows cowardice, but Miss Strangeworth is so conceited that she probably doesn't even consider this to be a cowardly practice. 

So, even someone like Miss Strangeworth, who seems like a good person on the surface, is capable of evil. The title suggests the possibility of evil in anyone and particularly, in people like Miss Strangeworth. She is not really helping these people because she is not giving constructive criticism. She is simply being insulting and condescending. 

Her use of anonymous criticism is somewhat similar to the hate speech and ugly comments we see on the internet today. Going under an anonymous screen name gives some people the notion that they can say anything, with no consequences. It is easier to be self-righteous and judgmental when one is removed from those whom she/he is criticizing. 

This story shows negative aspects of human nature: duplicity, self-righteousness, and cowardice. 

davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The story presents us with a pretty grim picture of human nature overall. Outwardly, Miss Strangeworth is a harmless, respectable old lady, a pillar of the community. However, in the comfort and seclusion of her study she is a vicious, hateful individual writing poison pen letters to various people in the town. What is all the more disturbing about Miss Strangeworth's behavior is that she genuinely believes that she is doing good. As far as she is concerned, she is the town's unofficial guardian of public morals. As such, she feels that she has the right to put people straight about raising their children, for example.

What Jackson hints at in the story is the banality of evil. From countless books, movies, and TV shows, we often gain the impression that evil is completely black and white, whether it takes the form of brutal dictators, wicked stepmothers, or blood-thirsty vampires. Jackson shows us, however, just how terribly ordinary evil can be and how those engaged in evil acts often believe themselves to be upholding an elevated moral code, as Miss Strangeworth does.

Human nature is a strange beast indeed. What is particularly effective about Jackson's portrayal of it in "The Possibility of Evil" is the way she simply presents it to us without comment, allowing us to take it in with all its myriad moral complexities and make up our own minds. In particular, she forces us to ask a simple question: "Have I ever thought about behaving in a similarly unpleasant way toward others?" In the age of internet trolling and cyberbullying, that is a question that more and more of us need to ask.