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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Discussion Topic

Miss Strangeworth's perception and actions of evil in "The Possibility of Evil"

Summary:

Miss Strangeworth perceives evil in her town through suspicion and anonymous poison-pen letters, hinting at potential wrongdoing. She believes it is her duty to alert others to possible evil, despite often having no factual basis. Her actions reveal her own hidden jealousy and envy, making her blind to her own flaws. Her moral values are skewed, focusing more on appearances than compassion, leading to hypocritical and damaging behavior.

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What was the evil that Miss Strangeworth saw in "The Possibility of Evil"?

Miss Strangeworth did not actually see any evil. She didn't even guess that anybody in the town was doing anything evil. She sensed that there was evil behavior going on in the town, and she saw the possibilities of evil in many human relationships. The poison-pen letters she has been writing for the past year mostly hint at the possibility of evil, except for the letters she sends to Don and Helen Crane about the possibility that their adored six-month-old daughter could be mentally retarded. (The victimizing of Don and Helen Crane is a clue to Miss Strangeworth's real motivation.) According to Miss Strangeworth's twisted mind, if she hints at enough possible wrongdoings, a certain percentage will be correct. There is an element of truth to this strange hypothesis, because there is bound to be a certain amount of misbehavior going on in any community; and the bigger the community, the bigger the amount of undisclosed vice, crime, perversion, peculation, etc. If we knew all the guilty secrets of all the members of our community, all the skeletons in all the closets, we would be astonished. We do not know for sure whether Mrs. Harper's husband is having an affair with another woman. We do not know whether the grocer's grandson is stealing money out of the cash register. We do know, however, that Linda Stewart and Dave Harris, the high-school kids who love each other, are not going beyond the usual teenage necking.

Miss Strangeworth never concerned herself with facts; her letters all dealt with the more negotiable stuff of suspicion. Mr. Lewis would never have imagined for a minute that his grandson might be lifting petty cash from the store register if he had not had one of Miss Strangeworth's letters. Miss Chandler, the librarian, and Linda Stewart's parents would have gone unsuspectingly ahead with their lives, never aware of possible evil lurking nearby, if Miss Strangeworth had not sent letters opening their eyes. Miss Strangeworth would have been genuinely shocked if there had been anything between Linda Stewart and the Harris boy, but, as long as evil existed unchecked in the world, it was Miss Strangeworth's duty to keep her town alert to it.

The problem with Miss Strangeworth's method of policing the morality of "her" townspeople is that, if a certain number of guesses are correct, a much larger number must be incorrect. She is not a psychic. And she fails to appreciate the evil that exists inside herself. She tells herself she is motivated by civic responsibility, but the truth appears to be that she is full of envy and jealousy. She causes trouble for people who are reasonably happy and untroubled. A good example is Mrs. Harper. Miss Strangeworth as an old maid probably feels jealous of an old acquaintance who seems happily married. Miss Strangeworth has never had a baby, and therefore she seems sufficiently envious of Don and Helen Crane to try to poison their happiness in having a new baby. Miss Strangeworth has never known love, and therefore she could hurt inside every time she views the loving relationship between Linda Stewart and Dave Harris. Her real motives for writing her anonymous letters are evil, but they are buried deep inside her unconscious.

Actually, Miss Strangeworth is most unlikely to see much evil because she is a lonely old woman who spends most of her time in her home or in her rose garden. Agatha Christie's amateur-detective heroine Miss Jane Marple may somehow see all kinds of real evil in her little village; but Miss Strangeworth is not as intuitive as Miss Marple. When real evil comes to Miss Strangeworth in the form of having her rose bushes vandalized, she is clueless. It doesn't occur to her that Don Crane could have sent her the anonymous letter reading:

LOOK OUT AT WHAT USED TO BE YOUR ROSES

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What are some examples of Miss Strangeworth's evil actions in "The Possibility of Evil"?

Miss Strangeworth mainly reveals she is evil through the anonymous, poison pen letters she sends to her small town neighbors. They are filled with cruel statements and false insinuations. For instance, she writes in all caps to Helen Crane, who recently confided worries about her daughter:

DIDN'T YOU EVER SEE AN IDIOT CHILD BEFORE? SOME PEOPLE JUST SHOULDN'T HAVE CHILDREN SHOULD THEY?

These letters leave people in the town feeling worried and "grim":

Many people seemed disturbed recently, Miss Strangeworth thought.

Miss Strangeworth compounds her evil by being two-faced and hypocritical. She pretends to be kind and thoughtful. People confide in her because she seems sympathetic. Nobody suspects that she could possibly be the one sending the hateful, damaging letters.

Miss Strangeworth is evil, too, because her moral values are misplaced. She puts more emphasis on appearances than on compassion. For example, she is inordinately proud of her beautiful roses, and the beauty of her garden makes her feel superior to her neighbors. She also will rewrite her poison pen letters if the spacing is incorrect or she makes a mistake, because of the pride she takes in her neatness. She is an example of what the Bible describes as a person who is like a cup that is clean on the outside and dirty on the inside.

Finally, Miss Strangeworth is evil because she is blind to herself. Much of her evil comes from this flaw: she is obviously projecting onto others her own fears and vices because she can't stand the idea she is less than perfect or not superior to other people. A person who thinks they are holier than everyone else and can do no wrong is a dangerous soul who can do a great deal of damage.

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What are some examples of Miss Strangeworth's evil actions in "The Possibility of Evil"?

One could reasonably argue that the poison pen letters that Miss Strangeworth writes are not just nasty and mean-spirited, but downright evil in that they are designed to sow suspicion and set people at each other's throats.

Though Miss Strangeworth claims to be concerned with protecting the moral climate of the town, in actual fact, she constitutes its biggest threat. Far from encouraging people to live together in harmony, she actively seeks to create division, dissension, and mutual suspicion. By most people's standards, this would be regarded as evil.

A prime example of Miss Strangeworth's evil comes in the letter she writes to Mrs. Harper. In this poison-tipped epistle, she intimates that Mr. Harper is having an affair and that all of Mrs. Harper's friends are laughing at her behind her back.

If Miss Strangeworth really were concerned with the moral climate of the town, then she wouldn't write such letters. There's nothing remotely good about attacking someone who's on the wrong end of adultery. After all, Mrs. Harper hasn't done anything wrong here, so why should she be the one to be insulted in this way?

Here, as elsewhere, Miss Strangeworth's behavior is completely gratuitous. There's simply no need for her to write such an appalling letter. Far from improving the general moral climate of the town, far from doing good, her letter can only generate greater evil by making a bad situation much worse.

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What are some examples of Miss Strangeworth's evil actions in "The Possibility of Evil"?

From the onset of the story "The Possibility of Evil," it is clear that something is wrong in the town. Even though Miss Strangeworth lives on Pleasant Street and the day the story opens is beautiful and sunny, the characters in this tale appear worried and upset by something. As Miss Strangeworth makes her rounds around town, she notices that Mr. Lewis looks "worried" and that Mrs. Harper's "hand shook." In fact, many people have been "disturbed lately."

As the story progresses, the reader becomes aware that Miss Strangeworth has been writing anonymous letters stirring up the evil, darker side of human nature. Strangeworth believes that "people everywhere were lustful, evil, and degraded." Through her accusatory evil letters, she has turned the people of the town against each other. However, ironically, at the end of the story, the tables are turned. She receives a letter informing her about the destruction of her precious roses. Her belief in the wicked nature of people has been confirmed.

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What are some examples of Miss Strangeworth's evil actions in "The Possibility of Evil"?

To find examples of Miss Strangeworth being evil, look towards the end of the story when she is composing her next round of poison pen letters. Miss Strangeworth shows her darker side, for instance, by writing a letter to Mrs Crane which refers to their "idiot baby." Similarly, she also composes a letter to Mrs Harper in which she hints that Mr Harper is having an affair:

 "Is the wife really always the last one to know?"

These two examples are particularly evil because earlier in the story, Miss Strangeworth meets Mrs Crane and Mrs Harper in town and acts friendly and sympathetic towards them.

Finally, Miss Strangeworth composes another letter, this time to Mrs Foster who is due to have an operation. In the letter, Strangeworth suggests that doctors routinely make mistakes and that her nephew might encourage the doctor to do so: 

"Would Dr. Burns get his fee and a little extra from that nephew of yours?" 

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