The Possibility of Evil by Shirley Jackson

The Possibility of Evil book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download The Possibility of Evil Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Introduction

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.

 

Analysis

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...

(The entire section is 669 words.)