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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How does "The Possibility of Evil" reveal the author's view of society and evil?

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In "The Possibility of Evil," Shirley Jackson responds to her view that society is too quick to judge people based upon outward appearances.

The people in Miss Strangeworth's town believe that Miss Strangeworth is a genteel, sophisticated woman whose behavior is above reproach.  This assumption is based upon...

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her family's history and its roots in the town's "birth," and the careful, proper way she carries herself through every day of her life.  No one is suspicious of her, accepting her at face value.  The temptation to do this is great, but I do not feel that Jackson wants people to be inherently suspicious of their neighbors.  Perhaps, however, she conveys a sense of caution when dealing with people we do not really know.

This might be valid advice because as the town is so trusting of her, Miss Strangeworth is anything but genteel or sophisticated.  In fact, she takes pleasure in imagining the worst, and--more than that--feels it is her duty to be on the lookout for "the possibility of evil" and do something about it. Ironically, in trying to make the world a decent place, she is herself the very thing she fears.  She makes the lives of many people miserable by imagining unfounded evils about the thoughts and behaviors of the members of her community--she judges them, and then sends scandalous, accusatory, and harmful letters assuming the worst, but basing nothing upon facts.  As the narrator points out, Miss Strangeworth does not concern herself with facts.

In Jackson's story, she addresses those who believe too easily based upon what they see, and those who judge too quickly based upon what they think they see.

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Shirley Jackson's view of the world was always a little off center.  She had a way of presenting characters and situations that often had a hidden message about the quirky side of human nature.

In the short story entitled, "The Possibility of Evil," Jackson presents Miss Strangeworth as a woman in society who is well accepted and respected in her life and throughout the town.

When people meet Miss Strangeworth, she impresses them as being a cornerstone of the community, well-grounded and deeply rooted to all that is good and decent in this world. Because of these perceptions, we are all shocked when we learn her secret.  As a society, we often judge people based upon what we see, and not what or who a person really is.  As a society we are easily tricked, and often unaware that even the nicest people in the world can hide behind outward appearances.

There is a quote by Shakespeare that says, "There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so."  This basically means that things are bad sometimes only if they are perceived as bad.  For instance, in this story, no one thinks Miss Strangeworth is evil.  They cannot conceive of such a thing with Miss Strangeworth.  However, she is the evil in in this story.

On the other side of the argument, things are often considered evil simply because of the perception.  In a male-dominated society, a woman might be considered bad if she went to school and started to share her own ideas.

In "The Possibility of Evil," Miss Strangeworth's perception of evil is not accurate.  The narrator tells us that Miss Strangeworth does not deal in facts.  Someone does not need to actually be bad to be considered bad in her mind.  For Miss Strangeworth, it is the "possibility" that someone might be bad, in order for her to act on this "fact" and send a letter.  The evil does not actually exist, only Miss Stangeworth's perception of evil, which is not a valid observation.

Society and people like Miss Strangeworth are confused equally when a person or situation is judge by appearance rather than the truth.

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