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 reputation and perception by others in town

Summary:

Miss Strangeworth is perceived by others in town as a kind and respectable older woman. She is well-regarded and seen as a pillar of the community, known for her beautiful roses and polite demeanor. However, this positive reputation contrasts sharply with her secret activities of sending malicious, anonymous letters to her neighbors, revealing a hidden, vindictive side.

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How is Miss Strangeworth perceived by other characters?

Initially in the story, the other characters see Miss Adela Strangeworth as a lovely old lady in whom they can freely confide. For example, Helen Crane mentions to Miss Strangeworth her worries that her baby isn't developing fast enough, and the children in the town treat her respectfully as she goes to the post office.

This is because Miss Strangeworth is careful to keep her identity as the writer of the poison pen letters a secret. As she notes, "she had always made a point of mailing her letters very secretly."

We can imagine, once she is found out at the end of the story, that the townspeople will treat her very differently from now on. We can also imagine that she will blame the rest of the townspeople for being evil to her and not acknowledge that she brought the situation on herself.

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What is Miss Strangeworth's reputation in town?

In "The Possibility of Evil," Miss Strangeworth has a good reputation and this is as made up of a number of factors:

  • She is widely admired for the roses in her garden. Tourists who pass through the town stop and admire her garden, for example, even though she never gives a rose away.
  • She is well-liked by the people in her town, as we see when she walks down Main Street. People wave at her, for instance, and stop to say hello. This behaviour is repeated in the grocery store, too.

At the very end of the story, however, Miss Strangeworth's reputation undergoes a significant change when a resident finds out that she is the author of the anonymous letters. The sabotage of her roses shows that her reputation has been permanently damaged and that people no longer believe that she is a sweet and kind old lady.

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What is Miss Strangeworth's reputation in town?

Mrs. Strangeworth definitely has a reputation in town.  First, she thinks highly of herself and her place in the town.  She talks about how long her family has been there and about the statue of her grandfather that should have been put up in place of Ethan Allen.  “There wouldn’t have been a town here at all if it hadn’t been for my grandfather and the lumber mill.”  She is also known for growing beautiful roses and keeping them to herself instead of sharing them with visitors or the church. “…when she picked the roses at all, she set them in bowls and vases around the inside of the house her grandfather had built.”

Mrs. Strangeworth is also opinionated and bossy.  She is rather rude to the shopkeeper who does not remind her to buy tea.  She tells another customer that she is not looking well.  When she leaves the shop, she talks to the baby’s mother and dismisses her concerns as nothing.  When she walks to the post office to deliver her letters and she drops one, one of the children asked if she could be sending someone a check.  The response is, “Catch old Lady Strangeworth sending anybody a check!”  Everyone knows Mrs. Strangeworth, but not many people really like her.

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What is Miss Strangeworth's reputation in town?

Miss Strangeworth has a very good reputation in town. She's seen as a kindly, harmless little old lady. She often stops to talk to people in the street on her daily rounds, dispensing advice and generally making pleasant conversation. No one would ever suspect just how vicious and nasty she really is. After all, she's lived in the town longer than just about everyone else; her father was one of the first people to build a house in the street where she lives. And she's always seemed to care very deeply about the town and its inhabitants. Miss Strangeworth is a local institution.

The problem, however, is that Miss Strangeworth has become, in her own mind at least, the unofficial guardian of the town's stability and moral purity. This is her town, and she thinks that gives her the right to tell other people how to live their lives. And when she sits down in her quiet little study to write those nasty poison-pen letters, she genuinely thinks she's doing the town an important public service. 

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What is Miss Strangeworth's reputation in town?

Miss Strangeworth is a female Jekyll and Hyde. She is generally considered a conservative, respectable woman and a distinguished citizen because of her old family name. She is respected, but not especially well liked. We see indications that some of the townspeople may treat her deferentially, but regard her as a pest and a busybody. Perhaps some of them even sense intuitively that she is not as nice as she appears. 

Mr. Lewis, the grocer, does not like this woman because she is a nuisance. She buys everything in small quantities to give her an excuse for coming back frequently. She has nothing to do with her time, and her grocery shopping is a big event in her day. She believes she is a very important person in this little town and wants to be treated accordingly. She orders one chop, a box of strawberries, a can of cat food, and one tomato. This suggests that she will have to come back tomorrow for another chop, another can of cat food, and perhaps another tomato. There are half a dozen people in the store, but she takes precedence and makes Mr. Lewis wait while she thinks about what else she might need. She buys a quarter of a pound of tea at a time and expects Lewis to remember that she always buys her tea on Tuesdays.

Miss Strangeworth looked at him curiously and then said,”It’s Tuesday, Mr. Lewis. You forgot to remind me.”

“Did I? Sorry.”

“Imagine your forgetting that I always buy my tea on Tuesday,” Miss Strangeworth said gently. “A quarter pound of tea, please, Mr. Lewis.”

Her interaction with the grocer is important because it shows that he is a bit afraid of this sweet little old lady. He knows she could cause him trouble if he got on her bad side. She is a force to be reckoned with. Why doesn't she buy a pound of tea at a time? Why doesn't she buy a half-dozen cans of cat food? She likes being waited on, and she likes having something to do. She likes getting around in her town and chatting with people, always keeping an eye out for the possibility of evil. She has already poisoned Mr. Lewis's life by sending him one of her anonymous letters suggesting that his grandson may be robbing the cash register.

When Miss Strangeworth goes to mail her poison-pen letters at the post office, the behavior of the young people she encounters tells a lot about what they think of her.

There was always a group of young people around the post office…. 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.”

When she accidentally drops the letter to Don Crane on the floor at the post office, Dave Harris tells his girlfriend Linda Stewart he will hand-carry it to the Cranes' home, suggesting tht there might be a check in it. Linda's response shows her dislike. 

“Catch old lady Strangeworth sending anybody a cheque,” Linda said. “Throw it in the post office. Why do anyone a favour?”

So Miss Strangeworth is respected, feared a little, but not really liked by anyone. She has a dark side, like Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll, which she keeps hidden from the world until she accidentally drops her poison-pen letter to Don Crane on the post-office floor.

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What is Miss Strangeworth's reputation in town?

The matter of Miss Strangeworth's reputation is an interesting thing to think about. The narrative voice in the story is omniscient, yet much of the time it seems almost as though the story is being described via Miss Strangeworth's own thoughts. So when we read the statement "the town was proud of Miss Strangeworth and her roses and her house," the line comes across somewhat like a bit of self-assurance that Miss Strangeworth herself might have decided was true. Prior to that line, delivered as Miss Strangeworth is walking home from the grocery store, we have already seen multiple people acting uneasy when Miss Strangeworth talks to them. It seems as though there is another underlying feeling about her beyond the pride that she both feels and believes others feel about her.

After the scene in her house where we witness Miss Strangeworth writing several rude notes to people in her town, we begin to see what she is really like. Miss Strangeworth writes her notes anonymously, consciously choosing to spread suspicion in spite of having no factual cause, because she feels that she is doing a service for everyone in helping people be on guard against possible problems. But as it turns out, her method of anonymous gossip to warn people of possible evils in the world is worse than any evil she imagines they might encounter; Miss Strangeworth is the "possible evil" in the town.

In light of our discovery of her true nature, it is easy to see through the words that describe her after she leaves her house to mail the rude letters she has just written. When she arrives at the post office, the narrative says:

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."

If we visualize this scene in our heads, "respect" is perhaps not the word that comes to mind. The children had been happily skating and hanging out together before she emerged in the darkening evening to mail her letters. It seems like all of them froze. It is odd that children happily playing would suddenly cease all movement and noise in someone's presence unless they had a reason to stop. The feeling of discomfort is heavy here.

Miss Strangeworth is oblivious to the feelings of other people in regard to herself. Her own pride blinds her, causing Miss Strangeworth to have to speculate about people's thoughts. And because she is prideful, she never imagines they think of her in any other light than a positive one. Whether there had been respect for Miss Strangeworth before, we ultimately see that her facade is about to be torn away in the last line of the story. She cries about the "evil" that could have caused someone to destroy her roses (ironically not realizing that her own behavior is the evil that led to it).

It is not likely that the destruction of the acclaimed rose garden will go unnoticed. As an act of revenge and rage, it is rather likely that the mere destruction will not be the last thing that the rose-destroyer does about the injury he or she has received. He or she is likely to tell somebody about who and what provoked the deed. People will begin to put together the evidence and realize that the notes they have been receiving for the past year have all been written by the same person. Will the townsfolk pity her for the loss of her roses? Will people feel the "pride" that we were told they felt for Miss Strangeworth? Judging by the damage we have already seen alluded to in the story, it is not likely that Miss Strangeworth's reputation is going to come out of this situation unscathed.

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What is Miss Strangeworth's reputation in town?

Miss Strangeworth's reputation in Shirley Jackson's story The Possibility of Evil is revealed through a series of awkward encounters she has with her fellow townsfolk. When Jackson's story begins, the reader is introduced to what one presumes will be the quintessential kindly old lady, happily and determinedly tending her garden and her home. The reader is prepared for a story in which this nice woman will assume center stage, but definitely not in the manner presumed. The first intimations of this occurs when Miss Strangeworth enters the small town market where she buys groceries. The shopkeeper, Mr. Lewis, is peculiarly ill-at-ease in Miss Strangeworth's presence, but we don't yet know why, or even if his behavior is attributed to Miss Strangeworth. It is, perhaps, only in retrospect that this encounter bodes ill for the remainder of Jackson's narrative. Inquiring of the shopkeeper about the availability of strawberries, Miss Strangeworth continues on about her business, but is puzzled by Mr. Lewis' demeanor:

“I shall have a box,” Miss Strangeworth said. Mr. Lewis looked worried, she thought, and for a minute she hesitated, but then she decided that he surely could not be worried over the strawberries. He looked very tired indeed…. “And a can of cat food and, I think, a tomato.” Silently, Mr. Lewis assembled her order on the counter and waited. Miss Strangeworth looked at him curiously and then said,”It’s Tuesday, Mr. Lewis. You forgot to remind me.”

As Miss Strangeworth continues on her morning routine, she continues to greet others in a seemingly friendly manner, but, again, the reactions she receives are not what one would expect. Still, one cannot predict yet the turn of events to come. Something is bothering the people of the town, but Miss Strangeworth can't fathom the reason ("Many people seemed disturbed recently, Miss Strangeworth thought."). Once she arrives home, however, the reader is exposed to the malicious nature of this woman. As her letter have all been mailed anonymously, however, her reputation for evil cannot be known. What is revealed, though, is her reputation for extreme frugality, noted when she accidentally drops one of her letters that is retrieved by the teenagers whose reputations, unbeknownst to them, Miss Strangeworth has been deliberately maligning. Note in the following passage the reputation she apparently has among her neighbors:

“Old lady Strangeworth’s getting deaf,” he said, looking after her and holding in his hand the letter he had picked up…. “It’s for Don Crane,… this letter…. Might as well take it on over.”… He laughed. “Maybe it’s got a cheque or something it and he’d be just as glad to have it tonight instead of tomorrow.”

“Catch old lady Strangeworth sending anybody a cheque,” Linda said. “Throw it in the post office. Why do anyone a favour?”…

This exchange reveals Miss Strangeworth's reputation for being cheap, but it does suggest that she had heretofore developed a reputation for evil. The anonymous letters, we have already learned, are the reason for the suspicious behavior of the townsfolk. It is only after her misplaced letter to Don Crane is innocently delivered by the teenage boy does Miss Strangeworth's reputation for evil emerge.

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What is Miss Strangeworth's reputation in town?

The narrator does not specify how Miss Strangeworth is viewed by all the members of her community, but there are indications that she is generally well regarded. 

Walking down Main Street on a summer morning, Miss Strangeworth had to stop every minute or so to say good morning to someone or to ask after someone's health. When she came into the grocery, half a dozen people turned away from the shelves and counters to wave at her or call out good morning.

She is an institution in the town. Everyone is familiar with her habits. They take her to be a nice old lady and know nothing about her dark side. The reader knows nothing about this dark side either. It comes as a surprise to see that she is responsible for creating suspicions, fears, and unhappiness with her anonymous letters. No doubt the people in her town would have an entirely different opinion of her if they knew the truth. We can judge how people feel about her now by imagining how they would feel about her--and how they would treat her--if they ever found out that she was a secret trouble-maker.

Only one man in the town finds out the truth about her character. He is Don Crane, who has her poison-pen letter hand-delivered to him by the teenaged Dave Harris after she accidentally drops it on the floor at the post office.

There was always a group of young people around the post office....Most of the children stood back respectfully as Miss Strangeworth passed, silenced briefly by her presence, and some of the older children greeted her, saying soberly, "Hello, Miss Strangeworth."

It might seem that the young people of the town sense something about this little old lady that the older people do not. The kids treat her with respect because she is an iconic figure, but they do not like her. Perhaps they sense intuitively, as children can do, that there is something a little sinister about her.

Don Crane and his wife have received at least one previous letter in which Miss Strangeworth suggested that their baby might be mentally handicapped. When Dave Harris gives him the pink envelope and tells him who dropped it at the post office, Don sees that the envelope and note are in the same "childish block print" as the note or notes they received before. He takes his revenge by destroying her precious rose bushes during the night and sending her an anonymous letter which reads:

Look out at what used to be your roses.

The reader is left wondering. Will Don Crane or his wife Helen tell other people what they know? Will this old woman be exposed to the whole community as the destructive nut case she is? Will Miss Strangeworth be frightened into giving up her sinister hobby of writing poison-pen letters? Will she keep a lower profile and perhaps even seclude herself like Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens' novel Great Expectations or Miss Emily Grierson in William Faulkner's story "A Rose for Emily?"

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