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The Possibility of Evil

by Shirley Jackson

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Student Question

How does the author create a positive image of the main character in "The Possibility of Evil"?

Quick answer:

Shirley Jackson creates a positive image of her main character at the beginning of "The Possibility of Evil" by giving her the characteristics of a harmless, sweet, little old lady, which is the exact opposite of what she really is.

Expert Answers

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As an expert storyteller, Shirley Jackson doesn't come right out and show us what an evil old woman Miss Adela Strangeworth really is. On the contrary, she wants to surprise us, to confound our expectations about what this woman is really like as a person.

To that end, she starts off by giving the impression that Miss Strangeworth is nothing more than a sweet little old lady, one who would never write a string of really nasty poison-pen letters to various people in the town.

When we're first introduced to Miss Strangeworth, we're presented with a little old lady walking “daintily” along Main Street to the grocery store. “Dainty” means delicately small and pretty, certainly not the kind of characteristic one would expect in a writer of poison-pen letters.

In subsequent paragraphs, Jackson continues to use language to lull us into a false sense of security regarding Miss Strangeworth. We're told that she has a “pretty little dimple” showing by her lip. Once again, everything about Miss Strangeworth's appearance suggests nothing more than everyone's favorite granny.

It is not just Miss Strangeworth's physical appearance that makes her seem like a positive character; her behavior does too. For instance, when the new minister came, she kindly sent over a large basket of gladioli. And when she walks down Main Street, she always stops to say good morning and asks about people's health.

On the basis of the first few paragraphs of “The Possibility of Evil,” we could be forgiven for thinking that Miss Adela Strangeworth is very much on the side of the angels. However, as subsequent events will show, she is anything but.

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