The Possibility of Evil by Shirley Jackson

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What is the problem in the possibility of evil?

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Lauren Willson, M.A. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The problem in "The Possibility of Evil" is that Miss Strangeworth doesn't recognize that she, herself, is the wicked evil in town. She sees herself as the helpful person who keeps her town on the right side of things, yet doesn't comprehend her own wickedness and the malice in her letters.

Miss Strangeworth sends anonymous letters to people in town and uses them to point out what she sees as flaws in their behavior or intentions. She isn't always aware of whether a problem really exists; she considers her letters a way of keeping people on their toes. She thinks that her vigilance is what will banish the evil of the town. People are friendly to her because they don't know she's the one sending the letters that actually cause pain and strife to the residents.

In the end, someone sees her drop one of her letters and delivers it for her. The next morning she wakes up to a letter of her own that indicates her prized roses have been destroyed. Still, Miss Strangeworth doesn't seem to recognize the evil and malice in her own actions and still fully blames the people in her community.

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The conflict in Shirley Jackson's 1965 short story "The Possibility of Evil" is found within Miss Adela Strangeworth, who believes that the small town where she has resided her whole life "belonged to her." Acting on assumptions she makes based on snippets of conversations, her own observations, and her suspicions regarding other people in town, Miss Strangeworth is compelled to write anonymous letters to manipulate others into sharing her values and beliefs and adopting the behaviors she wishes to see. Miss Strangeworth's controlling behavior is destructive to the lives of others and eventually backfires. Instead of rectifying the missteps of others, she has destabilized what is likely an ordinary town populated, as any town is, by people with all sorts of foibles. In the end, she is called to answer for her controlling and destabilizing behavior because, in fact, the town does not belong to her.

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