Shirley Jackson, in her short story The Possibility of Evil, opens her narrative with, what in retrospect, is a very interesting passage. Miss Adela Strangeworth appears at first glance to be a wonderful person, kind and friendly to strangers, living in a home built by her grandfather on Pleasant Street – a moniker obviously selected for its irony. In her second paragraph, Jackson provides the following descriptive material on Adela that, if one wasn’t familiar with the author’s body of work, could logically presume that this protagonist was the ideal neighbor:
“She knew everyone in town, of course; she was fond of telling strangers – tourists who sometimes passed through the town and stopped to admire Miss Strangeworth’s roses – that she had never spent more than a day outside this town in all her long life. She was seventy-one, Miss Strangeworth told the tourists, with a pretty little dimple showing by her lip, and she sometimes found herself thinking that the town belonged to her.”
It is only in retrospect that the irony in this passage becomes apparent. Note the phrase “found herself thinking that the town belonged to her.” Adela, whose last name was chosen as much for its ironic element as the street on which this less-than-benevolent elderly woman resides, is the “evil” referenced in the story’s title. As The Possibility of Evil progresses, the sense of foreboding suggested by the story’s title, its main character’s last name, and the street on which she lives, gradually builds. Jackson’s narrative is subtle, and the quirks in her main character are only incrementally revealed. It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate Shirley Jackson’s reputation (The Lottery, The Haunting of Hill House) from the beginning of any of her stories. A story with this particular title is certainly no exception. The reader begins to develop a sense of something awry when Adela enters the small neighborhood market where she clearly is a regular customer. Addressing the store’s proprietor, Mr. Lewis, Adela engages him in idle conversation:
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.
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.”
“Did I? Sorry.”
“Imagine your forgetting that I always buy my tea on Tuesday,” Miss Strangeworth said gently. “A quarter pound of tea, please, Mr. Lewis.”
“Is that all, Miss Strangeworth?”
“Yes, thank you, Mr. Lewis. Such a lovely day, isn’t it?”
“Lovely,” Mr. Lewis said.
Mr. Lewis is not responding to Adela in the transparently friendly manner with which he is being addressed. Still, we don’t have any particular reason to sense tension. The encounter with Helen Crane, the young mother of a six-month-old baby, seems to proceed without incident, Adele appearing a little abrupt, perhaps, but no matter for a 71-year-old woman prone to eccentricities. The troubling nature of Jackson’s character, however, becomes increasingly apparent as Adele continues on her way, encountering townsfolk and invariably commenting or thinking something that could be interpreted as judgmental:
Miss Strangeworth noticed that Miss Chandler had not taken much trouble with her hair this morning, and sighed. Miss Strangeworth hated sloppiness.
Many people seemed disturbed recently, Miss Strangeworth thought.
Still, Jackson lets the story proceed gradually, with only subtle hints of disturbances to come – hints so subtle, in fact, that, absent knowledge of the author’s repertoire, they would be barely perceptible. It is only when Adele returns home, however, that the full measure of her character is on display. Leading up to that revelation of evil is Jackson’s description of Adele’s next activity, the drafting of notes:
Miss Strangeworth’s usual stationary was heavy and cream-coloured, with “Strangeworth House” engraved across the top, but, when she felt like writing her other letter, Miss Strangeworth used a pad of various-coloured paper, layered in pink and green and blue and yellow; everyone in town bought it and used it for odd, informal notes and shopping lists.
Okay, so, we can now anticipate the writing of something presumably innocuous, as the above passage suggests, such as a shopping list or a note to remind her of some kind of activity or appointment. The following passage, however, is a little more peculiar and suggestive of malignant intent:
Although Miss Strangeworth’s desk held trimmed quill pen . . . and a gold-frosted pen,. . .Miss Strangeworth always used a dull stub of a pencil when she wrote her letters, and she printed them in a childish block print.
And, now, the full display of Adele’s true nature is revealed in the note she anonymously writes, and in the notes she begins to draft afterward:
Didn’t you every see an idiot child before? Some people just shouldn’t have children, should they?
She was pleased with the letter. She was fond of doing things exactly right…After thinking for a minute, she decided that she would like to write another letter, perhaps to go to Mrs. Harper, to follow up the ones she had already mailed. She selected a green sheet this time and wrote quickly: Have you found out yet what they were all laughing about after you left the bridge club on Thursday? Or is the wife really the last one to know? Miss Strangeworth never concerned herself with facts;
Jackson has built tension in her story – and there’s more to this story – through her use of irony, the strength of her reputation as an author of horror, and through the gradual display of a personality disorder that, it will turn out, is entirely psychopathic.