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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What is the foreshadowing in "The Possibility of Evil"?

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The foreshadowing in "The Possibility of Evil" is Miss Strangeworth’s obsession with her prized roses. She treats these family heirlooms with more respect and love than she treats other people in her town. Her excessive possessiveness of the roses and their precious role in adorning her superficially perfect home foreshadows their destruction and her comeuppance at the end.

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In "The Possibility of Evil," Miss Strangeworth is particularly enamored with her roses, which have been in her family for generations. As the community busybody and self-appointed arbiter of morality, the elderly woman is provincial but actually proud of this quality:

She knew everyone in town, of course; she was fond of telling strangers—tourists who sometimes passed through the town and stopped to admire Miss Strangeworth’s roses—that she had never spent more than a day outside this town in all her long life.

She also boasts of her family’s heritage in the town and the roses as heirlooms:

She sometimes found herself thinking that the town belonged to her. "My grandfather built the first house on Pleasant Street," she would say, opening her blue eyes wide with the wonder of it. "This house, right here. My family has lived here for better than a hundred years. My grandmother planted these roses, and my mother tended them, just as I do."

She prizes the roses so much that her possessiveness and snobbery are evident in her treatment of them; to her, they are more valuable and worthy of respect than people. They belong to no other person and nowhere else. Miss Strangeworth owns them like she thinks she "owns" the townspeople.

Miss Strangeworth never gave away any of her roses, although the tourists often asked her. The roses belonged on Pleasant Street, and it bothered Miss Strangeworth to think of people wanting to carry them away, to take them into strange towns and down strange streets.

Author Shirley Jackson sets up Miss Strangeworth’s excessive pride and proprietorial attitude early on in order to foreshadow the elderly woman’s later comeuppance. The roses represent security as well as an all-too-perfect appearance:

The perfume of roses meant home, and home meant the Strangeworth House on Pleasant Street. Miss Strangeworth stopped at her own front gate, as she always did, and looked with deep pleasure at her house, with the red and pink and white roses massed along the narrow lawn, and the rambler going up along the porch; and the neat, unbelievably trim lines of the house itself, with its slimness and its washed white look.

The masses of multicolored roses accent her white home’s impeccable look. Descriptors like "narrow," "unbelievably trim lines," and "slimness" reiterate her provincial nature and suggest her megalomaniacal control. This picture-perfect portrait of Strangeworth House on Pleasant Street is ripe for shattering.

Through the course of the story, Jackson reveals Miss Strangeworth’s self-righteous, speculative, inflammatory harassment of her fellow townspeople, all in the name of safeguarding others from evil. In fact, she—not others—is the source of evil in the community. Her malevolent authority over others is actually frail—as are her beloved roses. Up to near the end of the story, her roses are her unscathed, precious children that signify her sense of superiority over everyone else.

The roses are also the victims of retribution. After a recipient of one of her anonymous poison-pen letters discovers her identity as its author, vengeance is wreaked upon the roses. When Miss Strangeworth realizes this, she is greeted with the ominous words:


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How does the author use foreshadowing to build suspense in "The Possibility of Evil"?

Jackson’s story is almost a kind of parable, in its directness and brevity. Alert readers will begin to suspect something is up in this little town by the tone of Jackson’s writing—there is an aggressive quality to the “perfectness” of the town and Miss Strangeworth’s proprietary feeling about it that is a little uncomfortable. For instance, Jackson writes that Miss Strangeworth “sometimes found herself thinking that the town belonged to her,” a statement that is doubly concerning, first because it suggests that Miss Strangeworth might feel entitled to run the town, also, and second, because there is a kind of doubleness implicit in the narrator’s statement. The narrator is both addressing the reader, and choosing which “thoughts” that cross Miss Strangeworth’s mind to present to us. The question a reader must ask is: why is this sense of ownership important?

There are other cues as well: she has a sense of superiority to the tourists who admire her roses—she never gives them away, because she can’t imagine anything of hers belonging in “strange towns.” When she goes to the grocery store, she chides the grocer because he has forgotten that she always buys tea on Tuesdays; the grocer looks “tired;” elsewhere in the store, Mrs Harper hastily explains to Miss Strangeworth why she needs to buy sugar, with special attention paid to her shaking hands. Outside the store, she chides Helen Crane about worrying about her baby’s development. In each case, there is a sense that Miss Strangeworth is a keen observer, and that all too often things do not meet with her approval. She even notices the librarian’s hair on the way home with disapproval:”Miss Strangeworth hated sloppiness.”

All these things—her critical eye, her condescension to others, her sense of intitlement and social status—foreshadows her desire to control the lives of the people around her through her letters, and what will happen to her roses at the end of the story.

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How does the author use foreshadowing to build suspense in "The Possibility of Evil"?

The epigram to the story provides the first example of foreshadowing: "Little do the townsfolk suspect, though, that the dignified old woman leads another, secret life...". Right from the start, the reader knows to keep a close eye on Miss Strangeworth. In fact, the character's name is an example of foreshadowing. A name like hers raises readers' antennae for odd behavior.

Another example of foreshadowing is when Miss Strangeworth notes a townsperson acting out of character at the grocery store.

"Ran out of sugar for my cake frosting," Mrs. Harper explained. Her hand shook slightly as she opened her pocketbook. Miss Strangeworth wondered, glancing at her quickly, if she had been taking proper care of herself.

Mrs. Harper's shaking hand indicates she is feeling ill at ease. Later in the story, it is revealed that Miss Strangeworth had sent her a letter anonymously, implying that her husband was cheating on her.

Yet another example of foreshadowing is when Miss Strangeworth notices Linda Stewart upset. 

"Many people seemed disturbed recently, Miss Strangeworth thought. Only yesterday the Stewarts' fifteen-year-old Linda had run crying down her own front walk and all the way to school."

Linda is upset, the reader finds out later, because her father received a letter that warned him about Dave Harris and his intentions for his daughter. Linda was forbidden to see Dave anymore; again, this was Miss Strangeworth's doing. She believed that "people everywhere were lustful and evil and degraded, and needed to be watched" and it was her duty as the only living Strangeworth to do the watching and the telling.

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What are some examples of foreshadowing in "The Possibility Of Evil"?

Foreshadowing is a literary technique used by authors to give readers an indication of a future event in the story. Writers use a variety of methods or clues to keep the reader intrigued. It could be in the form of what characters say or do or might even be presented in the setting or the placing of objects. Bad weather, for example, is a standard indicator of some tragic or unfortunate mishap which is to unfold.

Three examples of foreshadowing in The Possibility of Evil are, first, the title itself. The title suggests that the story will expose some malicious incident or incidents, and the reader is, of course, interested to discover what insidious act in the plot inspired the title. It is quite ironic, therefore, to eventually find that the benign and dignified lead character is a malicious character who deliberately sows seeds of ill will in her community.   

A second example of foreshadowing lies in the lead character's name. Adela Strangeworth is an unusual name and creates the expectation that she will display some extraordinarily unusual behavior or perform an exceedingly uncommon task. If one links the name and the title, it predicts that Ms. Strangeworth is not only about to behave bizarrely, but that her actions might also be malignant. She is, at first, presented in such a robustly pleasant manner that the reader is compelled to discover what vindictive act such a wholesome character would want to perform.   

The third example of foreshadowing lies in Ms. Strangeworth's seemingly possessive attitude about the town. Her remarks about the statue of her grandfather and the reference to her roses suggest an unusual desire of being in control of what she might believe is her town, just as the roses are hers, and that she might take things a bit too far. The continuous references to her roses and how precious they are also hint at the fact that something unpleasant might happen to them which is, indeed, what occurs in the end.

There are some other examples of foreshadowing, but I believe that these three are the most pertinent. 

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What are some examples of foreshadowing in "The Possibility Of Evil"?

In "The Possibility of Evil," Jackson uses foreshadowing to provide subtle clues about the conflict which will take place. In the opening of the story, for example, Jackson describes Miss Strangeworth which includes an example of foreshadowing:

It bothered Miss Strangeworth to think of people wanting to carry them away, to take them into strange towns and down strange streets….

This line suggests that something bad will happen to her roses and, in fact, foreshadows the story's closing scene when her roses are massacred.

Next, we can find another example of foreshadowing when Miss Strangeworth is walking around the town:

Many people seemed disturbed recently, Miss Strangeworth thought.

This line suggests that there is an uneasy atmosphere in the town and, in doing so, foreshadows Miss Strangeworth's next bout of poisoned pen letters.

Finally, Jackson also uses foreshadowing to hint at Miss Strangeworth's intended victims. The following sentence provides one such example:

Don and Helen Crane were really the two most infatuated young parents she had every known, she thought indulgently.

The use of the word "indulgently" infers that Miss Strangeworth is not being open and honest with the Crane family. While she acts friendly in conversation, she feels, in fact, that they are not good parents and this foreshadows the poison pen letter that she later sends to them.

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