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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Is Miss Strangeworth's punishment at the end of the story appropriate?

Quick answer:

The punishment that Miss Strangeworth receives at the end of the story could be viewed as appropriate because it is aimed directly at her roses, the thing she cares for most in the world. This echoes the damage that she caused to other residents in the town.

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Miss Strangeworth spends her energies in tearing down others. She believes herself to be of the highest character, almost a type of nobility for their small town. Thus, she also believes that she is justified in passing along hurtful information, whether the information itself is true or not. She believes that evil must be rooted out, and by keeping everyone suspicious and on guard, she facilitates this effort.

Instead of confronting people directly, Miss Strangeworth works in secret. She doesn't write her letters on the stationery bearing her name and never signs her letters, either. She walks to the post office alone and includes no return address. In every way, Miss Strangeworth attempts to make certain that her identity cannot be discovered as she ruins lives around town. Sending out these letters is an act that she knows is "harsh," but she believes that exposing the wickedness of the town is worth it.

I'd say the punishment is appropriate for a couple of reasons. First, the actions are done in private, just as Miss Strangeworth herself operates. Instead of confronting Miss Strangeworth about the accusations in the letter, the writer of this letter works behind the scenes, mimicking the way Miss Strangeworth has always handled potential conflict. It's also appropriate because the writer strikes at Miss Strangeworth through something that she holds precious, just as she attacks lives in town by attacking things which citizens find precious, such as their marriages and children.

The writer of the letter most likely hoped to cause a character change in Miss Strangeworth by inflicting some pain on her, helping her to understand the way she has been hurting others. Unfortunately, destroying her roses seems to have only confirmed Miss Strangeworth's beliefs that she lives in a wicked world and that she herself stands apart from it. Therefore, the actions taken against her have not been appropriate for character change.

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To answer this question, it is worth looking at the damage that Miss Strangeworth inflicted on others and using this as a basis to assess whether or not the punishment she receives is appropriate.

Start, for example, with the Crane family. Despite being friendly and supportive of Mrs. Crane in the street, Miss Strangeworth goes home and writes a nasty anonymous letter about her baby. She calls the baby an “idiot child” and questions whether Mr. and Mrs. Crane should have had a child in the first place. Although we do not know the reaction of the Cranes to this letter, we can imagine that an attack on their child and their abilities as parents is extremely distressing.

Next, she writes a letter to Mrs. Harper. She talks about how other people laugh at her and implies that her husband is having an affair. As with the Crane family, Miss Strangeworth’s attack is very personal and is directed at the person closest to Mrs. Harper.

Given that Miss Strangeworth does not have a husband or child, we could argue that her roses are the closest thing she has to immediate family. Thus, the punishment that she receives is very much appropriate because it mirrors the pain that she has inflicted on other people in town.

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Miss Strangeworth takes great pride in her roses. At the end of the story, when she is unmasked as the author of the poison pen letters, she receives her own letter—telling her that her roses have been destroyed.

This would seem to be a fitting punishment for someone who has destroyed other peoples' lives through her malice. It is also not violent, in the sense that no human being was physically hurt, and yet it sends a strong message.

However, it is not really an appropriate punishment, because Miss Strangeworth misses the point completely. As she reads the letter, she begins to "cry silently for the wickedness of the world."

The letter becomes simply another confirmation, ironically, that everyone else in the world is secretly wicked. She doesn't understand that it is her own wickedness that brought this sad fate on her. Despite all that she has done, she still thinks she is pure and an agent of goodness in a fallen world.

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It could be said that the punishment that Miss Strangeworth receives is inevitable, if not appropriate. In the small town in which she lives, it seems unlikely that one day she would not be discovered as the author of the hateful letters that so many people have received over the years.

The question of the appropriateness of her punishment is debatable. The destruction of the flowers seems unnecessary to get the point across that her actions are now known by others and unappreciated. In a small town, it would be easy to put the word out that Miss Strangeworth is the judgmental and nasty person who has gone out of her way to hurt others under the cowardly cover of anonymity. If her cover were to be blown, she would likely be ostracized as a natural consequence. Perhaps that would be the appropriate response to her indefensible behavior.

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The answer to this question is largely a matter of opinion. However, there's no doubt that there's an element of poetic justice about Miss Strangeworth's comeuppance. If there was ever a case of "what goes around, comes around," then this is it. Miss Strangeworth spends much of her free time writing really nasty poison pen letters to other folks in the town. She genuinely thinks that she's acting with the very best of intentions. After all, she does feel that this town kind of belongs to her, on account of her grandfather building the first house on Pleasant St. As the town's unofficial matriarch, she believes herself to have a deep sense of responsibility for the general moral tone of the place. That's why she writes her letters.

But when Miss Strangeworth receives a threatening letter of her own, she suddenly gets a taste of her own medicine. And, yet, she still doesn't see the harm in what she did. To her, the letter she receives is yet another example of the wickedness of the world, but we get no sense that she's in any way contrite for her own poisonous missives. Despite this particularly nasty case of bad karma, it doesn't seem that Miss Strangeworth has learned her lesson at all. That being the case, it could reasonably be argued that, yes, she did receive an appropriate punishment for her actions, albeit one that no civilized person could possibly condone.

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