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

Start Free Trial

What do the roses symbolize in "The Possibility of Evil"?

Quick answer:

In "The Possibility of Evil," the roses symbolize the facade of sweetness and goodness that Miss Strangeworth presents to her neighbors. The roses could also symbolize Miss Strangeworth's pride and sense of social and moral superiority.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Miss Strangeworth is proud of the beautiful pink, red, and white roses that grow in her front yard and are often admired by outsiders. She won't let tourists have them, and when it is time to gives flowers to the church, "Miss Strangeworth sent over a great basket of gladioli" instead. She keeps the red and pink and white roses all for herself, scattering them in bowls or vases all over the house. For Miss Strangeworth, "the perfume of roses meant home." According to Miss Strangeworth, the town is proud of her beautifully tended house and roses.

The roses symbolize the outward facade of sweetness, kindness, and concern that Miss Strangeworth projects to her neighbors, all of whom think she is a kind and caring older woman. They are part of a role she plays, which includes her daintiness, pretty house, fine china, and polished silver, all of which work to disguise her inner evil and ugliness, even from herself.

Miss Strangeworth mistakes her outward, pretty facade for inner goodness. She believes that, because she outwardly smiles, shows concern, and has a beautiful home and rose garden, she is beautiful on the inside too. Because of her outward facade, she deceives her neighbors into also thinking she is good. All of them mistake appearance for reality. Miss Strangeworth is able to disguise her inner moral stink from herself and her neighbors under the sweet scent of her roses, just as roses have traditionally masked the rotten smell of a dead body—until her neighbors discover proof that she is the author of the hurtful poison-pen letters circulating in the town.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The roses symbolize Miss Strangeworth's sense of privilege and pride. Because they were planted by her grandmother, they represent a kind of inheritance, in the same way she feels ownership over the town itself, which, she thinks, would not be here were it not for her grandfather. This sense of ownership translates into a feeling of responsibility for emotional and moral health of everyone in the town. In this regard, they also symbolize her sense of superiority to other people.

Several details suggest Miss Strangeworth's fixation on the roses as a kind of emblem of her status within the town. For instance, she never allows anyone to take any roses. When they are cut, their use is reserved exclusively for her own house. In fact, there is a kind of fairy-tale quality to her house, which seems like a place out of time, filled with furniture and decorations left by her mother and grandmother. The roses and their scent mark the place as "home." In a way, like in a fairy tale, the roses seem to have an almost magical quality, as if it is the roses which account for Miss Strangeworth's place in the town.

In that sense, the roses function ironically. On the one hand, they are beautiful and have a lovely scent; on the other, as a symbol of pride, they represent the ugliness of Miss Strangeworth's letters, which spread fear and misery throughout the town. When her identity as the letter writer is found out, and her roses are destroyed in retaliation, it is as if the secret, evil nature of the roses has been uncovered. The moral rectitude Miss Strangeworth values so much finds expression in the destruction of the very thing that represents her identity.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "The Possibility of Evil," the roses also symbolize Miss Strangeworth's deep and historic connection to the town. Planted by her grandmother, the roses have been on Pleasant Street as long as the Strangeworth family has. During that time, the roses have blossomed and grown, just like the town around them. This symbolic value also explains Miss Strangeworth's reluctance to let people pick the roses. For her, picking a rose and taking it away is tantamount to the Strangeworth family leaving Pleasant Street. It is, quite literally, unimaginable.

The roses also symbolize Miss Strangeworth's desire to create the perfect town. When she returns home from the grocery, for example, her neat and tidy rose-covered lawn is a welcome sight and symbolizes the idealized town she hopes to create by sending her poisoned pen letters.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In The Possibility Of Evil, the roses symbolize the deceptiveness of outward appearances of beauty. A rose is a beautiful flower, but its thorns can cause both discomfort and injury. 

In the story, Miss Strangeworth is an elegant older lady with pretty dimples. She is easily recognizable 'with her dainty walk and her rustling skirts.' Her red, pink, and white roses are the talk of the town and the envy of tourists. She is a woman of deep tradition; Miss Strangeworth never gives her roses away, believing that the roses belong on Pleasant Street. The townspeople accord her deep respect and courtesy.

Yet, Miss Strangeworth masks a petty and spiteful spirit (thorns) behind her sophisticated and graceful manner (beauty of the rose). She secretly writes unkind letters to those who she believes are in need of her vindictive observations and her self-righteous advice.

The Roman tradition of the Rosalia includes the practice of offering roses to the deceased (who are viewed as the protectors of homes). Similarly, the imagery of Miss Strangeworth's preoccupation with her roses and her town is apt; she imagines herself the spiritual conscience and the preserver of good moral order in her town. The fact that her maliciously written messages on nondescript colored paper (she does not utilize the elegant Strangeworth stationary for these missives) may prove hurtful to her audience thoroughly escapes Miss Strangeworth's calculations.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the symbolism of the roses in Shirley Jackson's short story "The Possibility of Evil"?

It can be argued that, in Shirley Jackson's short story "The Possibility of Evil," Miss Strageworth's roses symbolize the emotions Miss Strangeworth associates with a perfect, pleasant life.

By the middle of the story, we learn that Miss Strangeworth's roses are red, pink, and white. Characteristically, red roses symbolize passion; pink roses symbolize gratitude and appreciation; and white roses symbolize purity, even spirituality.  All of these feelings are necessary for a pleasant, happy life. But, more interestingly, Jackson is drawing a connection between all of these feelings associated with roses and Miss Strangeworth's desires for perfection.

We see the connection between the roses and her desires for perfection when, early on in the story, Miss Strangeworth reflects to herself, "The roses belonged on Pleasant Street, and it bothered [her] to think of people wanting to carry them away." The name Pleasant Street represents her desires for all things pleasant and perfect; therefore, the fact that the roses belong to Pleasant Street shows us that she sees the feelings associated with her roses as only belonging to her, to the perfection she feels is Pleasant Street. Even more interestingly, her desire for perfection makes her the exact opposite of the feelings her roses represent; her desire makes her selfish, manipulative, ungrateful, unfaithful, and the exact opposite of religious.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on