person's head surrounded by envelopes connected by a rose vine that spirals into the person's brain and at the other end blooms into a rose surrounded by lost petals

The Possibility of Evil

by Shirley Jackson

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What are some devices used in "The Possibility of Evil"?

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Like any short story, "The Possibility of Evil" shares the usual literary devices and elements. The tale follows a common plot arc of exposition to resolution as we learn what type of person Miss Strangeworth really is. But what really sets this story apart is the plot twist...

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at the end which is kept hidden by the narration.

Told from a third-person omniscient point of view, the reader learns about the town and the main character, Miss Adela Strangeworth, through this unlimited perspective, but just because the narrator knows everything about her doesn't mean they relay everything they know. It's almost as if the narrator intentionally frames the narrative in favor of Adela which deceives the reader.

Another notable device is the positive diction used which creates vivid imagery for the reader. While the story title connects to the concept of evil, the setting seems pleasant, along with the characters.

For example, look at the opening passage:

Miss Adela Strangeworth stepped daintily along Main Street on her way to the grocery. The sun was shining, the air was fresh and clear after the night’s heavy rain, and everything in Miss Strangeworth’s little town looked washed and bright.

Positive diction such as "daintily," "fresh," and "bright" make the scene feel beautiful and ideal.

We see this cheerful imagery again when Miss Strangeworth approaches her home:

From halfway down the block Miss Strangeworth could catch heavy accent of her roses, and she moved a little more quickly. The perfume of roses meant home, and home meant the Strangeworth House on Pleasant Street.

The positive diction and vivid imagery create a cheery and unassuming tone which begins to shift once Adela starts writing her letters. It's these letters that become a cause of concern for the reader, leaving them to wonder who this woman is and why she is so critical. The mood shifts from pleasant to confused to downright dark.

In the end, we see the ultimate irony. Miss Strangeworth accidentally drops the nasty letter she was going to send. The Harris boy, thinking he is doing a kindness for Adela, picks up the dropped letter and brings it to the recipient. However, this moment of dramatic irony reveals the truth to the town about the evil that has silently been brewing.

We also find irony in Adela's letters. She believes she is doing the right thing by ridding the town of the "evil" the townsfolk create, yet Adela is the one spreading said hate by insulting each and every person living there.

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One literary device Shirley Jackson uses is point of view. By telling the story from Adela Strangeworth's perspective, Jackson deceives us at first as to the nature of Adela's character: she comes across as the sweet person she believes herself to be. For example, we learn that:

Miss Strangeworth took deep breaths, and thought that there was nothing in the world like a fragrant summer day.

Miss Strangeworth presents as a dear old lady who grows roses, smiles with a dimple, and wouldn't hurt a fly.

Jackson uses dialogue to show how different—and deceptive—the outward persona of Miss Strangeworth is. On the outside she seems to be all kindness, comfort, and light. It is only later that we find out about the disconnect between the persona she presents and her vicious inner nature. For example, she says to Helen Crane about her baby:

“She just seems—slow,” Helen Crane said.

“Nonsense. [says Miss Strangeworth] All babies are different. Some of them develop much more quickly than others."

Her poison pen letter will have a much harsher tone, but without a record of the conversation we wouldn't know how different the cruel, destructive voice of the letter is from the way Adela presents herself in public.

Jackson's descriptive details—her use of imagery—is another literary device that puts us in the story and, as well, helps characterize Miss Strangeworth as a person filled with self-love and self-satisfaction. We discover that she

looked with deep pleasure at her house, with the red and pink and white roses massed along the narrow lawn, and the rambler going up along the porch; and the neat, unbelievably trim lines of the house itself, with its slimness and its washed white look....

Like herself, Miss Strangeworth feels her house is perfect and superior.

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An obvious example of verbal irony in "The Possibility of Evil" can be seen in the warm, friendly words that Miss Strangeworth speaks to the townsfolk she meets on her daily travels. These words are ironic in that they are express the exact opposite of what Miss Strangeworth really feels. She'll say nice things to people's faces then return home to write another vicious poison-pen letter criticizing them for their "slow," "idiot" babies and their supposedly thieving grandchildren.

With her spoken words, Miss Strangeworth expresses care and concern for the people of "her" town. This is her public face, the picture of the kindly old granny she presents to the world. But her written words tell a different story altogether, revealing in all their foulness and depravity the dark depths of her soul.

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There are many literary devices used in The Possibility of Evil. Perhaps the most common literary device used is irony. The author uses various forms of irony, including dramatic, situational, and verbal. The story itself leaves the reader feeling as though everyone and anyone has the potential to be evil. The use of the dramatic irony is linked to the main character, Mrs. Strangeworth. She is very much a perfectionist in the story, so much so that she writes letters about the flaws of others. She is obsessed with criticizing others and pointing out their imperfections but she fails to see her own. Since she is unable to see her own flaws, she ends up being perhaps the most wicked character in the story. The situational irony is evident in the way Mrs. Strangeworth behaves when she interacts with the people she likes to criticize. The fact that she acts kind and nice to these people while inwardly feeling anything but is an example of situational irony.

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