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 is Miss Strangeworth characterized in "The Possibility of Evil"?

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In "The Possibility of Evil," primarily through indirect characterization, Jackson shows us that Miss Strangeworth only pretends to be kind and compassionate. In fact, she has stuffed down her aggressive and negative emotions behind a smiling facade. Her poisoned soul wells up and expresses itself through the cruel letters she anonymously sends to her neighbors.

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Miss Strangeworth is primarily characterized indirectly in this short story. This means that Jackson mostly shows us what she is like through her actions and thoughts rather than using an omniscient narrator to tell us what Miss Strangeworth is like.

Because of the indirect characterization, our awareness of who Miss Strangeworth is unfolds slowly. At first, she appears to be a kindly older woman who grows beautiful roses in her yard and is actively engaged in the life of her neighbors. As the story continues, however, we realize that Miss Strangeworth is the author of poison pen letters meant to hurt others in her community.

Miss Strangeworth feels superior to the other people in her town, who don't seem to meet her standards. For example, the librarian can be "sloppy" about her personal appearance, and the grocer is wrong not to instantly remember Miss Strangeworth's order.

As the self-appointed arbiter of good and evil in the town, Miss Strangeworth justifies her letters as a way to keep evil in check. However, she also, we are told, likes writing them.

Miss Strangeworth is a typical woman of her day who has been forced to stuff down her feelings behind a smiling facade of kindness and good will. Because she has never been able to acknowledge her aggressive or unpleasant feelings, as she has been taught they are "bad," they have been bottled up inside her and poisoned her. Now the poison is erupting as she spreads her long repressed malice throughout her community.

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It would be fair to call Miss Strangeworth a reactionary. She is deeply averse to change or variation in the narrow existence in which she defines herself and her neighbors. Miss Strangeworth has extremely rigid notions about the unwritten rules of society and makes it her mission to try to correct what she sees as deviations from the norm through her anonymous letter-writing campaign.

Though she finds quite a lot to criticize in her neighbors, Miss Strangeworth is completely self-satisfied. She revels in her roses, her ritualized meals, and her schedule. When Miss Strangeworth is forced to confront the fact that she has been found out as the anonymous letter-writer, she fails to recognize her own evil and remains focused on the wrongdoings of others instead of considering that perhaps she has brought the destruction of her roses on herself.

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Miss Strangeworth is a complex character. The entire story is actually about the difference between appearance and reality in this woman's character. On the surface she appears to be a kindly, harmless, uncomplicated little old lady with a small-town woman's interests and mentality. She prides herself on being the last surviving member of the town's oldest family and as such feels responsible for watching over the other citizens of the town. Then we find out that she has only recently acquired an obsession with writing anonymous letters in which she hints at the sinful behavior of one person to a person closely connected with him or her. In one other instance she writes poison-pen letters to the parents of a six-month-old baby girl in which she refers to the infant as an "idiot child."

Miss Strangeworth seems totally unaware that her letters are causing all kinds of trouble in her town. She thinks she is only doing her duty and is being helpful. We have to conclude that this old lady is losing her mind. She spends too much time alone. She writes her poison-pen letters in secret. It is apparent that the real motives behind all of her letters are envy, bitterness, loneliness, and jealousy. She unconsciously wants to destroy the happiness of people who have someone to love or someone to share their lives with. She is a pathetic person because she keeps herself busy with petty matters in order to keep from facing the truth about herself, which is that she is all alone, has never been loved, and nobody really cares about her. She resembles Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens' novel Great Expectations and Miss Emily Grierson in William Faulkner's short story "A Rose for Emily." Her unhappiness makes her cruel. A good example is in the case of the young lovers Linda Stewart and Dave Harris. They are just enjoying an innocent high school romance, but their happiness with being in love and having someone else to fill their lives brings out the worst in Miss Strangeworth because she has always wanted this and has never had it.

In the end we feel pity for this pathetic old maid, in spite of the trouble she has caused. We also feel sorry for her when Don Crane destroys her precious rose bushes after he accidentally finds out that she is the author of the poison-pen letters he and his wife have received about the possible arrested mental development of their baby daughter. The "possibility of evil" that Miss Strangeworth sees all around her in this little town is really a projection of the evil inside herself.

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What does Miss Strangeworth secretly do in "The Possibility of Evil"?

Miss Strangeworth has a dark secret. For the past year she has been writing anonymous letters to people in her town hinting that something bad may be happening in their lives which they are not aware of. She thinks that she is performing a public service and that, as the town's senior resident, it is her duty to issue these warnings. Instead, she is creating suspicion, anxiety, hostility, and other troubles.

On the day during which the story takes place, she writes three of her poison-pen letters. Her letter to Mrs. Harper suggests that the woman's husband is having an affair with another woman and that everybody knows about it but his wife. Her letter to Mrs. Foster suggests that the old woman's nephew might have bribed her surgeon to cause her to die on the table when she has her forthcoming operation. And her letter to Don Crane suggests that his six-months old baby girl is mentally retarded. The short note reads:


Miss Strangeworth prints all these letters and their envelopes in big block capital letters so that she cannot be identified by her normal handwriting. Quite by accident, Don Crane finds out that the letter he received had been written by this apparently sweet little old lady. He takes revenge by chopping up all her prized rose bushes and sending her his own anonymous letter in which he writes:


This is probably an evil thing for him to do, and it seems to prove Miss Strangeworth's belief that there are innumerable possibilities of evil in the citizens of her town. The story is somewhat reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," in which the protagonist finds out that all his apparently god-fearing neighbors are secretly devil-worshippers, including his own wife. In Shirley Jackson's better-known short story "The Lottery" it turns out that everybody in the town has a vicious streak and enjoys stoning one of their neighbors to death, as long as they have escaped drawing the black spot themselves. Miss Strangeworth is effective in putting people on their guards, because there really is a "possibility of evil" in everybody. It is obvious in "The Lottery" that everybody in the crowd is enjoying the thrill of stoning poor Tessie Hutchinson to death, especially Old Man Warner, who takes the lead saying, "Come on, come on, everyone." Sweet little old Miss Strangeworth thinks she is the only one in the whole town who is incapable of doing anything evil, and yet her greatest pleasure is in her evil hobby of writing poison-pen letters. The evil she senses in other people is really a projection of the evil inside herself.

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