What is the significance of the title in "The Possibility of Evil"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The title of the story "The Possibility of Evil " is a double entendre. Miss Strangeworth is obsessed with the possibility of evil in the citizens of "her town." Yet she doesn't realize that she has the possibility of evil in herself and brings it out in others. In...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

The title of the story "The Possibility of Evil" is a double entendre. Miss Strangeworth is obsessed with the possibility of evil in the citizens of "her town." Yet she doesn't realize that she has the possibility of evil in herself and brings it out in others. In fact, the story suggests that every one of us harbors the possibility of evil.

When Don Crane destroys all of Miss Strangeworth's precious rose bushes he is admittedly doing an evil deed--but she has brought it out in him. If a nice, ordinary guy and loving father like Don Crane can do such evil things, and if a nice old lady like Miss Strangeworth can do such evil things--than the assumption is pretty obvious that every human being has that evil potential which in most of us is suppressed but could come out under the right circumstances. 

The thesis of "The Possibility of Evil" is not much different from that of Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery." In that notorious short story we see the sadistic natures of some three hundred simple, ordinary country people all released at the same time when Tessie Hutchinson draws the slip of paper with the black spot. Her friends and neighbors, her own husband and children, all turn on her without pity. The traditional lottery has temporarily condoned what they are about to do.

Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. "It isn't fair," she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head. Old Man Warner was saying, "Come on, come on, everyone." Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him. "It isn't fair, it isn't right," Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.

In "The Possibility of Evil" we have one woman against a whole town, while in "The Lottery" we have a whole town against one woman. The indictment of human beings is pretty much the same in both cases.

Miss Strangeworth is right. There is a possibility of evil in everybody. Robert Louis Stevenson dealt with the theme in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but he was only following in the footsteps of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. It is a part of our animal heritage. It is also a symptom of the relentless struggle for survival on an overcrowded planet.

A struggle for existence naturally follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase. There is no exception to the rule that every organic being naturally increases at so high a rate, that if not destroyed, the earth would soon be covered by the progeny of a single pair.
                                Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

Don Crane was a victim of Miss Strangeworth's poison-pen campaign, but he must have gotten a fiendish pleasure out of his revenge when he went to work on her roses bushes with a big hedge-clipper and made sure she would get his own anonymous letter when she woke up the next morning.

She began to cry silently for the wickedness of the world when she read the words: Look out at what used to be your roses.

 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team