The Possibility of Evil Summary
Shirley Jackson's "The Possibility of Evil" reflects on the ways in which judgement and self-righteousness can warp a person's perspective.
- Miss Strangeworth believes herself to be a kind of guardian of her town and spends her days identifying "potential badness" in others.
- Whenever Miss Strangeworth identifies a potential evil, she sends an anonymous letter containing mean-spirited observations about the recipient.
- By accident, Miss Strangeworth drops one of her letters outside the post office. A well-meaning teenager delivers the letter on her behalf, and the next morning Miss Strangeworth gets a note ominously telling her, "LOOK OUT AT WHAT USED TO BE YOUR ROSES."
Shirley Jackson's "The Possibility of Evil" was published on December 18, 1965, in the Saturday Evening Post, a few months after her death. It won the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1966 for best mystery short story. Jackson's tale is a wonderful study into the nature of appearance versus reality. It also relies heavily on literary devices such as foreshadowing and irony.
Miss Strangeworth is the story's main character. In her seventies, she has spent her entire life in the town where she was born, believing her family is more responsible than any other for fostering the community to its current level of success. She takes pride in the part her grandfather played in the town's growth when he started a lumber mill. She also feels her family has not gotten enough credit: no statue, for example, has been erected in her family's honor. With this is mind, Miss Strangeworth has a strong sense of proprietary pride as she walks along and visits with her neighbors.
Miss Strangeworth takes particular care of her appearance. She never goes out in public without having attended to every detail of her hair and clothing. It is important that she appears proper in every way. She is extremely conscious of status. Even though she attended school with Tom Lewis, the town's storekeeper, after graduation Miss Strangeworth has referred to him only by his surname. Calling him "Tommy" is no longer appropriate, nor is their high school friendship.
As the story begins, Miss Strangeworth visits Lewis's grocery store to purchase a few items. She expects Mr. Lewis to know what she wants because it is Tuesday, and she always buys the same thing on Tuesdays. While there, she notices signs of worry on the faces of those she meets. She assesses the cause of each person's stress, making the reader aware that she knows a great deal about the personal lives of those in her community.
As Miss Strangeworth heads home, she meets Mrs. Crane, a new mother with her baby. Mrs. Crane is nervous about her infant, sharing worries with Miss Strangeworth that perhaps the baby is not developing quickly enough. Miss Strangeworth assures the mother that all is well, hinting that perhaps Mrs. Crane is expecting too much too soon from the little one.
They part ways and Miss Strangeworth returns home, passing her garden of lovely roses. Their fragrance fills the air, and she is very proud of them. The old woman goes inside and carries out her routine of putting away her purchases, pridefully noticing the lovely items in her home (including roses from her garden, placed in vases in several rooms).
Moving through the house, Miss Strangeworth goes to her desk and unlocks it. Ignoring the beautiful stationery with her name at the top, she selects colored paper from a cheap supply purchased at the newspaper shop. The colored sheets are used throughout the town for a variety of purposes, and the envelopes are often used to hold household odds and ends or even cookies for a lunchbox.
Miss Strangeworth ignores the beautiful gold pen on the desk and picks up a stubby, dull pencil. In childish print, on a pink sheet, she writes a note about people who should not have children, especially when the child they have is an idiot. Adela Strangeworth writes carefully so as to avoid mistakes. If and when this ever does...
(The entire section is 1,366 words.)