The Possibility Of Evil Setting

Describe the setting of the story, "The Possibility of Evil" by making references to three details about the time and place. Please give examples.

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Much as in Sinclair Lewis's Main Street, a novel about a small town in which ingrown mores and a stodgy complacency lead the citizens' resistance to change as they feel that tradition must be upheld, Miss Strangeworth, a "Strangeworth of Pleasant Street," feels herself the matriarch of her town, one she has only left for one day out of her entire seventy-one years.

As the self-declared matriarch, Miss Strangeworth feels herself in charge of upholding the morality of her town and preventing evil from taking hold. In this effort, she seeks to prevent the town from changing by writing surreptitious letters to anyone who transgresses. 

Miss Strangeworth never concerned herself with facts; her letters all dealt with the more negotiable stuff of suspicion.

Now, these details are mentioned because they are symbolized by details of the physical setting of Jackson's Gothic tale and well as the time in which it is lost.

  • Physical setting, the Place

Detail No. 1 -

There is an artificiality to the town:

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.

Miss Strangeworth desires her town to be picture perfect in both physical appearance and in its moral behavior. As support for this desire of the town's matriarch, the reader may consider this passage:

The town where she lived had to be kept clean and sweet, but people everywhere were lustful and evil and degraded and needed to be watched.

Detail No. 2 - 

Miss Strangeworth has a beautiful rose garden, but she never allows any tourists to have the roses. 

Miss Strangeworth never gave away any of her roses, although the tourists often asked her. The roses belonged on Pleasant Street, and it bothered Miss Strangeworth to think of people wanting to carry them away, to take them into strange towns and down strange streets….

Instead, Miss Strangeworth places "a bowl of her red roses on the low table before the window, and the room was full of their scent" for her own selfish delight.

  • Time in the setting

Detail No. 3

While no particular year is indicated, the reader can surmise that the time of Jackson's narrative is, perhaps, around the turn of the century; that is, the early twentieth century. Before the "Roaring Twenties," the moral climate of America was rather Puritanical; so the seventy-one-year-old Miss Strangeworth has probably been brought up in the Victorian Age, one of strict moral directives, especially for women; that she has never married suggests her prudishness, as well. Certainly, her attitudes reflect such a time period:

So much evil. Even in a charming town like this one, there still was so much evil in people.

Ironically, many of those who adhered so strictly to Victorian principles became a bit perverse in their enthusiasm to enforce their morals upon others. This perversity exhibits itself in Miss Strangeworth's clandestine letter writing; for, while in her self-righteousness she feels that she is setting others upon the moral path, instead she effects anxiety and distrust.  Furthermore, the recognition of her sanctimonious perversity comes to her in the note on green paper, much like the pink paper which she, like "everyone in town bought... and used it for odd, informal notes...." Like her notes, it is insinuating and destructive, "Look out at what used to be your roses."

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The setting of Shirley Jackson's story is one that suggests Gothic elements, as there is a town that seems lost in time as it is watched over by Miss Adela Strangeworth, a strange woman, indeed, who feels she must protect the town from evil.

1. Jackson gives no name to this town, thus allowing readers to surmise that it could be someplace they may even know. All that is named is Pleasant Street on which the Strangeworth home is located and Main Street where the grocery store is, and by these lines which also hint at something sinister and unusual,

The town where she lived had to be kept clean and sweet, but people everywhere were lustful and evil and degraded, and needed to be watched; the world  was so large, and there was only one Strangeworth left in it. 

2. Neither is there any particular time setting or date given, only suggestions of possibly being in the early twentieth century because Miss Strangeworth is described as 

Walking down Main Street on a summer morning,Miss Strangeworth had to stop every minute or so to say good morning to someone or to ask after someone’s health. When she came into the grocery, half a dozen people turned away from the shelves and counters to wave at her or call out good morning.

She also walks to the new post office in town.

The story takes place in twenty-four hours as Miss Strangeworth goes to the market in the morning, mails her letters in the evening, and receives her newspaper and mail the next morning:

Miss Strangeworth awakened the next morning with a feeling of intense happiness and, for a minute, wondered why, and then remembered that this morning three people would open her letters.

3. The beautiful roses in the front lawn of Miss Strangeworth's home on Pleasant Street act as deceptors to the meaning of the story. For, while they present a lovely picture of grace and decorum, they hide the strange nature of the occupant of the home, who will allow no tourists to take any roses from her yard.