What is Miss Strangeworth's reputation in town in Shirley Jackson's short story The Possibility of Evil?
Miss Strangeworth's reputation in Shirley Jackson's story The Possibility of Evil is revealed through a series of awkward encounters she has with her fellow townsfolk. When Jackson's story begins, the reader is introduced to what one presumes will be the quintessential kindly old lady, happily and determinedly tending her garden and her home. The reader is prepared for a story in which this nice woman will assume center stage, but definitely not in the manner presumed. The first intimations of this occurs when Miss Strangeworth enters the small town market where she buys groceries. The shopkeeper, Mr. Lewis, is peculiarly ill-at-ease in Miss Strangeworth's presence, but we don't yet know why, or even if his behavior is attributed to Miss Strangeworth. It is, perhaps, only in retrospect that this encounter bodes ill for the remainder of Jackson's narrative. Inquiring of the shopkeeper about the availability of strawberries, Miss Strangeworth continues on about her business, but is puzzled by Mr. Lewis' demeanor:
“I shall have a box,” Miss Strangeworth said. Mr. Lewis looked worried, she thought, and for a minute she hesitated, but then she decided that he surely could not be worried over the strawberries. He looked very tired indeed…. “And a can of cat food and, I think, a tomato.” 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.”
As Miss Strangeworth continues on her morning routine, she continues to greet others in a seemingly friendly manner, but, again, the reactions she receives are not what one would expect. Still, one cannot predict yet the turn of events to come. Something is bothering the people of the town, but Miss Strangeworth can't fathom the reason ("Many people seemed disturbed recently, Miss Strangeworth thought."). Once she arrives home, however, the reader is exposed to the malicious nature of this woman. As her letter have all been mailed anonymously, however, her reputation for evil cannot be known. What is revealed, though, is her reputation for extreme frugality, noted when she accidentally drops one of her letters that is retrieved by the teenagers whose reputations, unbeknownst to them, Miss Strangeworth has been deliberately maligning. Note in the following passage the reputation she apparently has among her neighbors:
“Old lady Strangeworth’s getting deaf,” he said, looking after her and holding in his hand the letter he had picked up…. “It’s for Don Crane,… this letter…. Might as well take it on over.”… He laughed. “Maybe it’s got a cheque or something it and he’d be just as glad to have it tonight instead of tomorrow.”
“Catch old lady Strangeworth sending anybody a cheque,” Linda said. “Throw it in the post office. Why do anyone a favour?”…
This exchange reveals Miss Strangeworth's reputation for being cheap, but it does suggest that she had heretofore developed a reputation for evil. The anonymous letters, we have already learned, are the reason for the suspicious behavior of the townsfolk. It is only after her misplaced letter to Don Crane is innocently delivered by the teenage boy does Miss Strangeworth's reputation for evil emerge.