Introduction to The Possibility of Evil

Shirley Jackson’s "The Possibility of Evil" was first published on December 18th, 1965, in the Saturday Evening Post, a few months after the author’s death; it went on to win the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1966 for best mystery short story. Jackson's tale serves as a masterful study of the contrast between appearance and reality, incorporating literary devices such as foreshadowing and irony. The story follows Miss Adela Strangeworth, an elderly woman who considers it her duty to keep the residents of her small town informed of their own and their neighbors’ faults and transgressions. To this end, she sends “poison-pen letters” to the same people she greets politely in town—letters that remain anonymous until the recipient of a particularly cruel message discovers Miss Strangeworth’s secret and decides to exact revenge.

A Brief Biography of Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson (1916–1965) was an American writer whose name brings to most people's minds two words: “The Lottery.” This darkly ironic story has been sparking controversy since it was first published in the New Yorker in 1948, when hundreds of people wrote letters in response. Many were openly confused by the story, and some were downright abusive; Jackson has said that only about a dozen of the letters struck a positive note. Though “The Lottery” is striking, its success was a mixed blessing for Jackson. The sheer amount of attention given to that one story often overshadows the extensive body of work she produced, just as her work’s dark tone sometimes causes readers to overlook her literary merit. In addition to short stories, Jackson wrote novels, including The Haunting of Hill House (1959), which has been adapted for film, television, theater, and radio; and memoirs, including Life Among the Savages (1952).

Frequently Asked Questions about The Possibility of Evil

The Possibility of Evil

Even at the beginning of "The Possibility of Evil," when Miss Strangeworth seems to be a relatively benign and harmless character, there is a faint foreshadowing of the truth when she tells...

Latest answer posted May 16, 2021, 11:58 am (UTC)

2 educator answers

The Possibility of Evil

Miss Strangeworth is proud of the beautiful pink, red, and white roses that grow in her front yard and are often admired by outsiders. She won't let tourists have them, and when it is time to gives...

Latest answer posted May 14, 2021, 11:51 am (UTC)

4 educator answers

The Possibility of Evil

Miss Strangeworth believes that human nature is essentially "evil." She sees herself as different from everyone else; she wishes to "live graciously," and so she is meticulous about her home's...

Latest answer posted May 16, 2021, 1:16 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Possibility of Evil

In "The Possibility of Evil," Miss Strangeworth is particularly enamored with her roses, which have been in her family for generations. As the community busybody and self-appointed arbiter of...

Latest answer posted May 15, 2021, 2:15 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Possibility of Evil

Miss Strangeworth sends nasty letters because she is appalled by the apparent "evil" in the world around her. She feels that she has some responsibility, as the only and last Strangeworth left in...

Latest answer posted May 15, 2021, 12:37 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Possibility of Evil

There are several questions Miss Strangeworth does not ask Mr. Lewis when she gets to the front of the line in the grocery store. First, when he seems to her to look "worried" about a box of...

Latest answer posted May 15, 2021, 11:40 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Possibility of Evil

The main conflict in "The Possibility of Evil" takes place within Miss Strangeworth's psyche. A strong desire to look perfect—to have the perfect house, garden, china, and silver, and to appear a...

Latest answer posted May 15, 2021, 12:00 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Possibility of Evil

A group of children sees Miss Strangeworth dropping some letters in the post office slot at dusk. She is aware that it would not be a good idea to let anyone know that she is the person behind the...

Latest answer posted May 15, 2021, 12:59 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Possibility of Evil

Miss Strangeworth is the descendant of her town's founders, has a beautiful rose garden on Pleasant Street, and acts as if she is full of kindness, caring, and supportive concern for all her...

Latest answer posted May 14, 2021, 11:32 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Possibility of Evil

If evil is defined as engaging in behavior that is harmful and hurtful to other people and actively being deceptive, then Miss Strangeworth is evil. She writes poison-pen letters that spread false...

Latest answer posted May 14, 2021, 12:17 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Possibility of Evil

The poison-pen letters Miss Strangeworth writes symbolize the anger and ugliness Miss Strangeworth has long repressed. Miss Strangeworth presents as a sweet, caring, dainty, and kindly older woman...

Latest answer posted May 14, 2021, 12:31 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Possibility of Evil

In “The Possibility of Evil,” Miss Strangeworth—one of the town’s oldest residents and self-appointed barometer of morality—sends poison-pen letters to other residents she deems in need of advice,...

Latest answer posted May 14, 2021, 8:47 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Possibility of Evil

Dave Harris decides to hand deliver Miss Strangeworth's letter to Don Crane, instead of putting it in the mail, because he seems to be a kind person who would do a favor for another person, despite...

Latest answer posted May 17, 2021, 12:52 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Possibility of Evil

Miss Strangeworth seems to stop and greet everyone, conducting little conversations on relatively trivial matters, in order to get ideas about where "evil" in her town might be lurking. She speaks...

Latest answer posted May 17, 2021, 11:54 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Possibility of Evil

The story begins on a clear summer's morning in what seems to be a quiet, peaceful town. We are told that the sun is shining and that the air is "fresh and clear." We are also told that, because it...

Latest answer posted May 16, 2021, 1:21 pm (UTC)

2 educator answers

The Possibility of Evil

Miss Strangeworth gets caught when she accidentally drops one of her colorful but nasty notes outside the post office. She goes to put her letters into the slot to be mailed the next day, and two...

Latest answer posted May 17, 2021, 11:40 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Possibility of Evil

In Shirley Jackson's "The Possibility of Evil," Miss Strangeworth leads a double life. She is a revered citizen in the town where she lives, a descendant of one of the town's original founders, but...

Latest answer posted May 16, 2021, 4:55 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Possibility of Evil

In "The Possibility of Evil," Miss Strangeworth monitors and passes judgment on the lives of other people in her community. The short story’s setting is an unnamed small town. The action most...

Latest answer posted May 17, 2021, 4:13 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Possibility of Evil

It is ironic that Miss Strangeworth lives on Pleasant Street, because she is extremely unpleasant herself. She feels that it is her responsibility to warn others about any potential "evil" that...

Latest answer posted May 16, 2021, 1:01 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Possibility of Evil

Miss Strangeworth is proud of her family background. She is a descendant of one of the town founders. She asserts that "there wouldn't have been a town here at all" if not for her grandfather...

Latest answer posted May 17, 2021, 11:37 am (UTC)

1 educator answer
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Summary