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 Characters

The main characters in “The Possibility of Evil” are Miss Adela Strangeworth and the townspeople.

  • Miss Adela Strangeworth is the main character of the story. She keeps apart from the other townspeople and writes them anonymous, cruel, and often false letters to “alert” them of what she considers bad behavior.
  • The townspeople, all of whom seem to have been affected by Miss Strangeworth’s letters, include Mr. Lewis, who owns the grocery store; Helen and Don Crane, the parents of a young baby; and Linda Stewart and Dave Harris, young people Miss Strangeworth encounters outside the post office.

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Miss Adela Strangeworth

Miss Adela Strangeworth is the main character of this short story by Shirley Jackson. She is seventy-one years old, and even in the context of the narrative voice thinks of herself as “Miss Strangeworth,” a form of address which befits her status (in her mind) as the woman whose grandfather built the first house on Pleasant Street. She knows everybody in town, has never left it, and still tends the roses her grandmother tended in the house the family has owned for a hundred years. She is extremely possessive of these roses.

As Miss Strangeworth moves around town on her errands, she speaks to everybody, dispensing advice but also remarking on their appearance and comportment; she “could not abide sloppiness.” Despite the air of propriety she gives off, however, the reader soon learns that Adela’s interest in others’ affairs is born out of a moralistic sense that she is the puritanical guardian of the town. It is her duty to “alert” inhabitants to her suspicions about the bad behavior of their family and friends. Miss Strangeworth clearly enjoys this “duty”: “she liked writing her letters.”

Evidently, as she leaves the letters unsigned, Miss Strangeworth knows on some level that this is not a worthy moral crusade. She also posts her letters in secret, hoping not to be seen. When, however, she drops one of her unsigned letters, her secret is discovered by one of the young people whose lives she has ruined by exposing their “wickedness,” and Miss Strangeworth is duly punished. At the end of the story, it is strongly implied that her roses have been destroyed.

Mr. Lewis

Mr. Lewis owns the grocery store where Miss Strangeworth purchases her daily goods. Although she addresses him cheerily, Mr. Lewis does not appear happy to see Miss Strangeworth. Instead, he seems “tired” and “worried,” and he is unable to remember Miss Strangeworth’s usual order as she feels he should. It is later revealed that Miss Strangeworth has sent Mr. Lewis an unsigned letter saying that his grandson has been taking money from the cash register. However, the reader cannot be sure whether or not this (or any of the information in Miss Strangeworth’s letters) is true:

Miss Strangeworth never concerned herself with facts; her letters all dealt with the more negotiable stuff of suspicion.

Whether the report is true or not, the letter is presumably the cause of Mr. Lewis’s worry and distraction.

Martha Harper

Martha Harper is a woman Miss Strangeworth encounters in the grocery store. Under the pretense of concern, Miss Strangeworth observes to herself that Martha is no longer as young as she used to be, and thinking that she needs a “tonic” or impetus to take care of herself, Miss Strangeworth writes to Martha to imply that her husband is having an affair.

Helen Crane

Helen Crane is the devoted young mother of a new baby. She expresses her worries to Miss Strangeworth that the child is not developing as quickly as she might have expected. Miss Strangeworth puts Helen’s mind at rest, pretending to be an interested and concerned neighbor, but Helen will later receive a letter suggesting that her child is an “idiot” and that she must simply accept this fact.

Miss Chandler

Miss Chandler is the town librarian. The narrative does not make it clear what exactly she has been told by Miss Strangeworth, but she is clearly a recipient of Miss Strangeworth’s poison pen letters, and they have been affecting her mood and health. She has stopped looking after herself and begun to be “sloppy,” which Miss Strangeworth finds abhorrent.

Linda Stewart and Dave Harris

Linda Stewart has been seen around town crying by Miss Strangeworth, behavior Miss Strangeworth thinks is disreputable. It later becomes clear that Linda may or may not have been in a relationship with Dave Harris. From the narrative, it is indicated only that they are friends who often spend time together in a group of young people who spend time near the post office. Linda Stewart is extremely distressed because of a letter her father has received. The contents of the letter are too horrible for her to reveal to Dave, but the outcome is that she is no longer allowed to see Dave. It is implied that Miss Strangeworth has suggested an affair between the two young people.

Clearly, Linda does not think highly of Miss Strangeworth and thinks it unlikely that she would be sending anybody a check, suggesting that Linda finds Miss Strangeworth quite an ungenerous old lady. In fact, Linda is the only person in the story to outwardly express any kind of dislike for Miss Strangeworth.

At the story’s end, Linda and Dave find one of Miss Strangeworth’s letters on the ground, addressed to Don Crane. They take it to him directly.

Don Crane

Don Crane is Helen’s husband and the parent of the baby that Helen believes to be “slow.” The reader infers that, after receiving the cruel letter from Linda and Dave and being told that it has come from Miss Strangeworth, Don is the architect of the violence enacted upon Miss Strangeworth’s roses at the end of the story.

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