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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The significance and implications of the title "The Possibility of Evil."


The title "The Possibility of Evil" suggests that seemingly ordinary and respectable individuals can harbor malevolent tendencies. It implies that evil can exist beneath the surface of everyday life, challenging the perception of inherent goodness in people and communities. This theme is central to the story, as it reveals the hidden darkness within the protagonist and her actions.

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What is the significance of the title in "The Possibility of Evil"?

The title of the story "The Possibility of Evil" is a double entendre. Miss Strangeworth is obsessed with the possibility of evil in the citizens of "her town." Yet she doesn't realize that she has the possibility of evil in herself and brings it out in others. In fact, the story suggests that every one of us harbors the possibility of evil.

When Don Crane destroys all of Miss Strangeworth's precious rose bushes he is admittedly doing an evil deed--but she has brought it out in him. If a nice, ordinary guy and loving father like Don Crane can do such evil things, and if a nice old lady like Miss Strangeworth can do such evil things--than the assumption is pretty obvious that every human being has that evil potential which in most of us is suppressed but could come out under the right circumstances. 

The thesis of "The Possibility of Evil" is not much different from that of Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery." In that notorious short story we see the sadistic natures of some three hundred simple, ordinary country people all released at the same time when Tessie Hutchinson draws the slip of paper with the black spot. Her friends and neighbors, her own husband and children, all turn on her without pity. The traditional lottery has temporarily condoned what they are about to do.

Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. "It isn't fair," she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head. Old Man Warner was saying, "Come on, come on, everyone." Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him. "It isn't fair, it isn't right," Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.

In "The Possibility of Evil" we have one woman against a whole town, while in "The Lottery" we have a whole town against one woman. The indictment of human beings is pretty much the same in both cases.

Miss Strangeworth is right. There is a possibility of evil in everybody. Robert Louis Stevenson dealt with the theme in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but he was only following in the footsteps of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. It is a part of our animal heritage. It is also a symptom of the relentless struggle for survival on an overcrowded planet.

A struggle for existence naturally follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase. There is no exception to the rule that every organic being naturally increases at so high a rate, that if not destroyed, the earth would soon be covered by the progeny of a single pair.
                                Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

Don Crane was a victim of Miss Strangeworth's poison-pen campaign, but he must have gotten a fiendish pleasure out of his revenge when he went to work on her roses bushes with a big hedge-clipper and made sure she would get his own anonymous letter when she woke up the next morning.

She began to cry silently for the wickedness of the world when she read the words: Look out at what used to be your roses.

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What does the title of "The Possibility of Evil" mean? Where in the story is it explained?

The title refers to the possibility of evil occurring in Miss Strangeworth's town. At the start of the story, the name of the protagonist immediately gives one pause. We are led to question why the author gives her such a surname.

As the story progresses, this becomes clear in the way Miss Strangeworth sees herself. She fancies herself the mother of all good intentions and the self-imposed defender of moral values in her small town. Alas, we are led to question the 'strange' value she places on her own 'worth': the author tells us that Miss Strangeworth is not a woman concerned with facts. All the letters she writes to the unsuspecting victims of her twisted ministry are steeped 'in the more negotiable stuff of suspicion.'

In the story, Miss Strangeworth sees herself as a sort of herald who warns others of 'possible evil lurking nearby.' She fancies herself unique in her mission. After all, there were 'so many wicked people in the world and only one Strangeworth left in town.' It never occurs to Miss Strangeworth that her 'strange' way of helping her town and justifying her own 'worth' may actually be harmful to her fellow citizens.

Jackson explains the meaning of her title by highlighting Miss Strangeworth's strange preoccupation with the possibility of evil. Her rich use of imagery and symbolism (through the roses) supports a fascinating short story about the delusions of a self-imposed guardian of morality.

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What does the title "The Possibility of Evil" imply?

The title of the story refers primarily to Miss Strangeworth's obsession with the morality of the people in her town. She believes it is her responsibility to watch for evil behavior in everybody else, and she sees this possibility everywhere she goes. But it is only a possibility not a reality, at least in most cases. It is true that there may be some real wickedness going on in a small town and that if she suspects everybody of evil doings she will occasionally be right.

There is an old French saying which is especially pertinent to this story. It is:

Honi soit qui mal y pense

There are numerous possible interpretation of this phrase. In Miss Strangeworth it can be interpreted to mean that people who think others are evil are often evil themselves. It can also imply that people who think evil of others will end up suffering from the evil in others. Miss Strangeworth is projecting her own evil upon other people. She sees it everywhere because it is coming from inside herself.

Miss Strangeworth never concerned herself with facts; her letters all dealt with the more negotiable stuff of suspicion.

It is easy for her to see the "possibility" of evil everywhere she goes. For instance, she visits the grocery store nearly every day. She sees that the owners grandson is handling some of the cash and thinks how easy it would be for him to be "lifting petty cash from the store register." That is what she warns Mr. Lewis about in one of her anonymous letter and tarnishes the relationship between grandfather and grandson.

She finally brings out the evil in Don Crane's nature--and brings it upon herself--what he accidentally discovers that she is the author of a poison pen letter addressed to him and realizes she was the author of several she had sent to his wife. The letters all suggest that their baby daughter might be mentally retarded. In retaliation, Don Crane destroys her precious rose bushes with hedge clippers and sends her a letter reading:


So the title is a double entendre. Miss Strangeworth's concern about the possibility of evil in others has an evil motivation and brings out evil in others. This sweet little old lady is crazy and a menace to others. She will eventually be exposed, and then the whole town will turn against her. Instead of being the town's leading citizen she will be the town pariah.

Honi soit qui mal y pense

There is a passage in the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament which is particularly appropriate to Shirley Jackson's story.

Judge not, that ye be not judged.

For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.
                                                                    Matthew 7

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What is the theme of "The Possibility of Evil"?

One of the central themes of "The Possibility of Evil" is that appearances can be deceptive. Jackson shows this most clearly through the character of Miss Adela Strangeworth, who, on the surface, is a sweet and kind old lady. She helps decorate the Church with flowers, for instance, and everyone stops in the street to say hello to her.

As the story progresses, however, the reader realizes Miss Strangeworth is not quite as sweet as she seems. For some time, she has been writing poisoned pen letters to various people across the town. We see how hurtful Miss Strangeworth can be when she refers to Mrs. Crane's daughter as an "idiot baby" in one such letter, despite being nice to her in town.

Through the character of Miss Strangeworth, then, Jackson warns the reader that appearances can be deceptive because people are not always as good and honest as they seem.

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What is the theme of "The Possibility of Evil"?

In The Possibility of Evil, a 71-year-old woman who has lived in the same town her whole life, and knows everyone and everything in it, is revealed to be the source of cruel and insulting anonymous letters that the townspeople receive, counseling them on their personal business. Mrs. Strangeworth (her name is probably a pun) is oblivious to the hurt she causes, believing instead that she is the town's guardian against wickedness, most of which exists in her overactive imagination.

There are a number of themes that we can articulate from this story.

Evil can happen anywhere, as evidenced by the lack of a name or location for the town, and the embodiment of hypocrisy and viciousness in a seemingly sweet old woman.

Evil can never be eliminated or controlled; in trying to stop wickedness, Ms. Strangeworth begets wickedness, and becomes wicked herself.

Power corrupts; Ms. Strangeworth has power in the form of her reputation and familiarity around town, and she uses this power to control people's lives; it is interesting that she fails to recognize that hiding her identity in the letters may be a sign that what she is doing is corrupt.

One person can make a difference, even if that difference is a profoundly negative one.

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What is the significance of the title "The Possibility of Evil"?

One inference that could be made about what Jackson meant in giving the story the title she did is that she is referring to the possibility that evil lies in Miss Strangeworth herself—and, by extension, in the reader.

Miss Strangeworth thinks to herself repeatedly in the story that evil is everywhere. This can be seen in the following example:

There was so much evil in people. Even in a charming little town like this one, there was still so much evil in people.

However, she is blind to the fact that she herself does evil things, hurting people by sending them poison pen letters. By making herself the guardian of the good and the judge of evil in the town, Miss Strangeworth arguably projects those parts of herself she doesn't like and can't bring herself to acknowledge onto other people.

Even when her roses are destroyed in retaliation for her being revealed as the sender of the poison pen letters, she does not accept that she brought this on herself, but instead sees it as yet another manifestation of the evil in other people:

She began to cry silently for the wickedness of the world when she read the words: LOOK OUT AT WHAT USED TO BE YOUR ROSES.

If Miss Strangeworth can't see the possibility of her own evil because she is so busy judging others, perhaps, the title suggests, there is also the potential that we all might be blind to the possibility of our own evil.

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