The Possibility of Evil Summary

In "The Possibility of Evil," Miss Strangeworth considers herself the matriarch of her town. Afraid that there's evil in the townsfolk, she sends anonymous letters full of mean-spirited "truths" she has observed about others. This backfires on her at the end of the story.

  • Miss Strangeworth has lived in the same town for over seventy years. She believes herself to be a kind of guardian and spends her days identifying "potential badness" in others, including an innocent teenager whom she believes to be having sexual relations with his girlfriend.

  • Whenever Miss Strangeworth identifies a potential evil, she sends an anonymous letter full of mean-spirited observations (what she calls "truths") about the recipient. This has been going on for years.

  • By accident, Miss Strangeworth drops a letter meant for Don Crane, whose wife expressed concerns about their infant being "slow." That innocent teenager delivers the letter, and the next morning Miss Strangeworth gets a note saying: "Look at what used to be your roses."

Synopsis

The Possibility of Evil cover image

Shirley Jackson's short story "The Possibility of Evil" was published in the Saturday Evening Post on December 18, 1965. Although it did not gain the popularity or provoke the outrage that "The Lottery" did in 1948, "The Possibility of Evil" contains many of the elements seen throughout Jackson's writing: a Gothic house, intimations of depravity, and an unexpected turn in events or judgment.

On the surface, "The Possibility of Evil" is a simple story. Readers follow Miss Stangeworth, the story's main character, around town as she completes her daily routine. She is the matriarch of the town, and she acts the part. She knows everything about her town, and she proudly admits that she has never lived anywhere else during her seventy-odd years. As she stops to chat with other townspeople, she appears to be polite and caring.

Miss Stangeworth, however, is concerned about everyone she meets because something seems "wrong" with them. She feels it is her civic duty to stop evil from spreading in her town, so every day she mails anonymous letters to her neighbors to keep them on the alert. Unfortunately, the letters she sends are the very cause of the evil that she has been trying to battle: her malicious words provoke the behaviour she is guarding against. Miss Strangeworth never realizes her darkly ironic position, and when she is eventually discovered to be the source of the letters, she cannot understand why someone would do something as “evil” as destroying her prize roses.

Miss Strangeworth lives up indeed to her unusual name as the narrative unfolds, but the town itself remains unnamed. Because she wants to lend her stories a universal quality, Jackson rarely mentions where the action takes place in her work. The possibility of evil, Jackson implies, could happen anywhere.