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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Why does Miss Strangeworth write letters to others in "The Possibility of Evil"?

In "The Possibility of Evil," Miss Strangeworth writes letters to others to relieve her repressed aggressions and to project her own fears and desires onto others.

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Miss Strangeworth sees the town as her town. Her grandfather built the first house on Pleasant Street, as she proudly tells tourists, and this gives her a sense of proprietorship over those who live in the town. As such, Adela feels entitled to wear the mantle of local moral guardian, which involves doing all she can to root out the least sign of what she regards as immorality.

That's why she writes poison pen letters to various people in the town. Although the letters are thoroughly nasty and detestable, Miss Strangeworth genuinely thinks it's necessary for her to write them in order to maintain a high moral climate in town. The irony here is inescapable; Miss Strangeworth engages in immoral actions for the good of morality.

This bizarre and delusional attitude ultimately stems from what we saw earlier: Miss Strangeworth's proprietorial attitude to the town and its inhabitants. So long as the old lady genuinely thinks that this is her town and that she therefore has the right to act as the guardian of its moral climate, then she will continue to write such horrible letters.

Even when Adela gets a taste of her own medicine, she shows no regret for her actions. Instead, she cries silently for the wickedness of the world. In other words, she's not wicked; other people are. In her own mind, at least, she's still the paragon of virtue.

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It might seem like a facetious answer to say that Miss Strangeworth writes letters to others because there would be little point in writing them to herself. However, the story shows that Miss Strangeworth focuses on the flaws of others partly because she lacks the gift of introspection. She regards herself, her house, her roses, and everything she owns as the height of perfection. Mistakes are only made by other people. Even when buying her groceries from Mr. Lewis at the beginning of the story, she reproaches him for failing to remind her to purchase some tea, rather than assuming, as most people would, that it is her own responsibility to remember what groceries she needs. Throughout the story, she sees everyone's flaws except her own.

This minor incident at the beginning of the story demonstrates another characteristic of Miss Strangeworth's which leads her to write the letters. She enjoys power, control, manipulation, and the sense that she is sitting in judgment over lesser mortals. She has not forgotten to buy tea from Mr. Lewis; she merely wants to train him to follow her whims. Jackson says that Miss Strangeworth "sometimes found herself thinking that the town belonged to her." She has a strongly territorial attitude, constantly emphasizing the contributions her family have made to the town, and is resentful that others are insufficiently impressed by her importance. Writing her poison pen letters is a way of exercising power over those around her without engaging in open conflict.

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Miss Strangeworth writes poison pen letters to others because she has not developed healthy strategies to help her deal with her anger and aggression. She represses her feelings in order to keep up the appearance of sweetness and goodness that is so important to her ego and self-perception.

But as Freud wrote, what is repressed always comes back in other forms. Miss Strangeworth's aggressive feelings towards her neighbors come out in the form of her destructive, spiteful letters, meant to wound and cause pain. She writes what she cannot allow herself to say, or even fully acknowledge to herself, outside of the letters.

The letters show projection, a psychological defense mechanism in which people assign feelings and desires they find unacceptable onto others. Miss Strangeworth can't accept that the "evil" she finds "unchecked in the world" resides in her. She projects her feelings of self-loathing and her secret wishes onto others. It is most likely she who feels people are laughing at her or who wants to steal the petty cash from the grocer's register. But because her ego is fragile and because she works extremely hard to keep up the illusion that she is pure and superior to her neighbors, she can't accept these ideas might be her own and so accuses others of them.

At seventy-one, Miss Strangeworth has a host of unresolved psychological problems and repressions and might benefit from a good therapist to help her sort them out.

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In Shirley Jackson's short story "The Possibility of Evil," Miss Strangeworth is an elderly lady of the town who feels a moral obligation to warn other people of the potential evils that may befall them in life. She writes anonymous letters to people in order to "open their eyes" to "possible evil lurking nearby." The paragraph of the story that explains her motive for writing the letters also says that Miss Strangeworth "never concerned herself with facts" in the letters since she felt it was important to raise people's level of suspicion. We are told that Miss Strangeworth's opinion on the matter is that "as long as evil existed unchecked in the world, it was Miss Strangeworth's duty to keep her town alert to it."

Some of the "evils" that she has forced people to consider are of the more mundane sort, such as adultery and the birth of a child with retardation. Other imagined evils are more elaborate, such as the idea that someone's nephew might bribe a surgeon to fatally botch that person's upcoming surgery in order for the nephew to maybe receive his inheritance sooner. She has been ruining people's relationships and sense of security for an entire year with this letter-writing hobby. Unfortunately for Miss Strangeworth, the vigilance that she has been trying to teach to her neighbors is ultimately turned against her. When one letter recipient discovers that she is the author of the rude letters that have been received all over town, Miss Strangeworth's beloved rose garden is vengefully destroyed.

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Miss Strangeworth has developed some very distorted thinking and an unhealthy proprietary interest in a place "she had never spent more than a day outside." She believes that "there wouldn't have been a town here at all if it hadn't been for my grandfather and the lumber mill."

Because her entire life of seventy-one years has been spent in the same place, her range of experience is quite narrow. She is a reactionary who believes that the values she has embraced all her life must continue, and her letter-writing campaign is a pathological exercise in attempting to force her beliefs on others. The rigidity of her habits is demonstrated when she goes to Mr. Lewis's grocery and chides him for "forgetting that I always buy my tea on Tuesday." She is so self-absorbed that she doesn't stop to consider that Mr. Lewis has responsibilities beyond catering to her rituals—or that others have the right to live their lives as they see fit.

The hateful letters that Miss Strangeworth writes are an outward manifestation of her self-righteousness. It cannot be reasonably said that her letters are meant as constructive criticism. Instead, they are deliberately hurtful and do not recommend any corrective action. Because Miss Strangeworth's life is empty, it allows her plenty of time to observe and sit in judgment of others.

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