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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Miss Strangeworth's interactions with the townspeople in "The Possibility of Evil"


Miss Strangeworth's interactions with the townspeople are outwardly pleasant and polite, masking her true feelings and secretive actions. She presents herself as a kind and caring member of the community, but she privately writes anonymous letters to expose what she perceives as the hidden evils of others, causing distress and conflict.

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Why does Miss Strangeworth greet everyone in "The Possibility of Evil"?

Miss Strangeworth seems to stop and greet everyone, conducting little conversations on relatively trivial matters, in order to get ideas about where "evil" in her town might be lurking. She speaks with the "indulgent" Helen Crane, a woman who treats her baby like a princess and worries, dotingly, about the child's development. Miss Strangeworth asks another child why he isn't "riding in his daddy's shiny new car," and she quizzes the librarian about some books to be ordered, noticing that the woman "had not taken much trouble with her hair that morning." Mr. Lewis seems rather low in spirits, and Mrs. Harper looks unwell. It might seem as though Miss Strangeworth is simply a little officious but well meaning, until she arrives home.

The first thing Miss Strangeworth does when she reaches home is to take out her notepaper and begin writing nasty notes to people she had seen that day. She writes one to the Cranes, implying that their child is "an idiot" and that they should not have had children. She writes one to Mrs. Harper, implying that her husband is cheating on her and that everyone in town knows about it and laughs at her behind her back. She writes a final note to a Mrs. Foster, who is having surgery next month, implying that the doctor might take a bribe from Mrs. Foster's nephew to "accidentally" let his knife slip during the operation. From these notes, it becomes clear that Miss Strangeworth only interacts with others so that she will have fodder for her little letters. She "never concerned herself with facts," the narrator says, and she simply uses what she observes to make wild conjectures about others' lives and motives.

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Why does Miss Strangeworth greet so many people in "The Possibility of Evil"?

Miss Strangeworth takes pride in knowing everyone in town. She takes pride in the fact that her family has been in this town for generations. She wants people to know (even tourists) that she knows everyone in town. This is ironic considering her practice of sending anonymous letters. However, she writes anonymously to avoid consequences or rebuttals. 

She greets everyone in town in order to gather information about them. She presents herself as a caring, considerate neighbor. She engages all the people she meets with kindness but she also has an ulterior motive. She's looking for faults and flaws. She feels it is her duty to find flaws and make people aware of them (via her anonymous letters). This duty might come from a legitimate desire to encourage morals among her fellow citizens. But her letters are rude and hardly constructive. The narrator notes "as long as evil existed unchecked in the world, it was Miss Strangeworth’s duty to keep her town alert to it." She greets everyone so that she can have material for her letters. 

For example, she greets Helen Crane and is friendly in conversation. But when she gets home, she sends a letter implying that Helen's baby is an "idiot child" and that some people shouldn't have children. She sends this to Don, Helen's husband. This is the letter she drops, thus revealing to Don and Helen that she has been writing the letters. 

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Why does Miss Strangeworth greet so many people in "The Possibility of Evil"?

Miss Strangeworth has lived in this unnamed town all her life. 

She was seventy-one, Miss Strangeworth told the tourists, with a pretty little dimple showing by her lip, and she sometimes found herself thinking that the town belonged to her.

This statement is intended to explain why Miss Strangeworth takes the time to greet so many people. From the author's standpoint, this is an easy way for Shirley Jackson to introduce so many of the other characters in the story. Jackson seemed to like using a big cast of characters, as can also be seen in her famous story "The Lottery." It that story she uses a different point of view. It has been classified as: "Anonymous narration--no character point of view" by James Moffett and Kenneth R. McElheny in their excellent book Points of View: An Anthology of Short Stories (Revised Edition, August 1995).

The single character, of course, is Miss Strangeworth. (There is a slight deviation in the scene when she drops one of her letters at the post office and Dave Harris tells his girlfriend Linda Stewart he will deliver it personally to Don Crane the addressee.) Miss Strangeworth is an old maid and lives all by herself, as we see when she writes her poison-pen letters. Most people would describe her as a busybody and a gossip. She wants to know everything that is going on in "her" town. That is why she stops to talk to nearly everyone she meets. Not everybody wants to spend a lot of their time talking to her, but she has considerable status in the town and nobody wants to offend her.

Miss Strangeworth is lonely, a busybody, a trouble-maker, and a self-appointed judge of other people's morals and behavior. She has nothing but time on her hands from morning to night, as we see in the author's description of one of her day's activities. She makes a big project out of going to the grocery store and buying one small, lean veal chop, one box of strawberries, one can of cat food, one tomato, and one quarter-pound bag of tea. This of course will necessitate her coming back again tomorrow and the next day.

Some of the people Miss Strangeworth stops to talk to will be affected by the poison-pen letters she writes that day. She ran into Martha Harper at the grocery store, and she writes her an anonymous letter in which she asks:

Have you found out yet what they were all laughing about after you left the bridge club on Thursday? Or is the wife really the last to know?

She stopped to talk to Helen Crane about her six-month-old daughter and learned that Helen and her husband were both worried about their baby's apparently slow development. She writes another anonymous letter to Don Crane in which she asks:

Didn't you ever see an idiot child before? Some people just shouldn't have children, should they?

Her third letter is addressed to a character who doesn't appear in the story. It exemplifies Miss Strangeworth's technique of asking questions that will plant seeds of doubt, fear, suspicion, and enmity in people's minds. The letter is addressed to an old woman named Mrs. Foster, who ia having an operation next month. The message reads:

You never know about doctors. Remember they're only human and need money like the rest of us. Suppose the knife slipped accidentally. Would Doctor Burns get his fee and a little extra from that nephew of yours?

This letter is her best of the three because it plants seeds of fear and suspicion of both Doctor Burns and Mrs. Foster's nephew in the old woman's mind. Miss Strangeworth has a real talent for her hobby of writing poison-pen letters. 

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Why does Miss Strangeworth take time to greet so many people? Does Miss Strangeworth seem like a reasonable person? Explain.

Miss Strangeworth quite obviously is an old woman who has nothing to do all day except to spend a little time with her cherished rose bushes. She shows how she has to find ways to fill up time when she goes to the grocery store. She buys one veal chop, one box of strawberries, one can of cat food, one tomato, and a quarter of a pound of tea. This means that she will have to come back again tomorrow and the next day. It doesn't occur to her that she is making a nuisance of herself. Her shopping gives some purpose to her day.

Since Miss Strangeworth has so much time on her hands, it isn't surprising that she stops to talk to many people she knows, and she knows everybody. Younger people have other things to do besides talk to old ladies, but most of them are polite. An impolite person might describe her as a nosy old busybody. She dispenses free advice to people like Helen Crane. Her tendency to pry into other people's affairs and to offer free advice suggests why she might have carried it over into writing anonymous letters.

We see that the children do not like Miss Strangeworth at all.

Most of the children stood back respectfully as Miss Strangeworth passed, silenced briefly in her presence, and some of the older children greeted her; saying soberly, "Hello, Miss Strangeworth."

She is the kind of old person who corners children and asks them question after question until they feel desperate to escape. Perhaps we ought to feel sorry for this old lady with her empty life. She may not realize how unhappy she is. Her poison-pen letters may be a sign that she envies others who have fuller lives. All the letters mentioned in the story are to people who have someone to care about and someone to care about them.

Miss Strangeworth does not seem like a reasonable person. She seems insane and dangerous. She may be suffering from senile psychosis. The "possibilities" of evil that she dreams up and suggests in her letters may be delusions. The interesting thing about this character is that she seems to be one kind of person--a sweet, harmless old lady--and is actually a secretive and sinister menace. She is a Jekyll and Hyde type of person. She has only found this new hobby of writing anonymous letters in the past year. No doubt she will get better--and worse. She will become more creative in her poison-pen writing and thereby do more and more harm.

The fact that someone destroyed her rose bushes will not prevent her from continuing to write her anonymous letters. She does not know who did the damage or that it was in any way connected with one of her own letters--the one she sent to Don Crane. He probably won't tell anyone about receiving her letter suggesting that his baby was an idiot, because he wouldn't want to be suspected of retaliating by chopping up her roses bushes.

Now as then, ‘tis simple truth--
Sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth!
Charles Perrault, "Little Red Riding Hood"

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