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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The Possibility of Evil Analysis

  • Shirley Jackson’s “The Possibility of Evil” shares some features with her popular story “The Lottery” and the rest of her work. These include sudden turns that surprise the reader, the question of evil, and the tension between outward appearances and hidden truths.
  • By leaving the town in the story unnamed, Jackson implies that cruel and immoral actions can happen anywhere.
  • The story contains two strong examples of irony. For one, Miss Strangeworth’s appearance and good reputation belie her cruelty. Further, her letters do not actually prevent evil in the community, as she imagines: instead, they create it.


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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.



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Miss Strangeworth appears to know a great deal about others in her town, but she also seems to be isolated from her community. For example, she does not have close friends. She is not a member of any social group that readers know of, so where does she get information about her neighbors? Because she and Tom Lewis do not have the same social status, and therefore cannot share confidences with each other, how could she know about his grandson's alleged theft? She speaks to Mrs. Harper in the store about the other woman's health, but Mrs. Harper denies any problems. Readers might assume that Miss Strangeworth gets information through gossip, but by the end of the story, we know that much of what she believes is simply based on her imagination or suspicions.

The number of references to Miss Strangeworth's roses is an example of foreshadowing. They are admired by neighbors and visitors alike. Placed throughout her home, the roses are a sign of elegant living and a source of great pride for the older woman; the author tells us that Miss Strangeworth and the flowers even grew up together. As her pride and joy, the roses bring her great pleasure, but by the end of the story, they become a weapon of retribution in response to her hateful acts.

There are two clear examples of irony in the story. First, everyone respects Miss Strangeworth based on her appearance and overt behavior. No one suspects the truth beneath her facade of sophistication and elegance. It is ironic that the members of her community afford her the benefit of the doubt based on what they see, but that Miss Strangeworth is unable to do the same for them.

The second example of irony is that Miss Strangeworth's attempts to address the "possibility" of evil is what actually creates misfortune throughout her community. The only evil that exists in the story is the darkness that lies within Miss Strangeworth's own heart. Even more frightening than her actions is that she sees nothing wrong with what she does. She thus perceives Mr. Crane's return letter as yet another example of "evil," not as retribution for the harm she has done.

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