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 main conflict in "The Possibility of Evil"?

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The main conflict in "The Possibility of Evil" takes place within Miss Strangeworth. She is unable to integrate her negative feelings into her psyche and so expresses them in destructive ways through poison-pen letters.

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The main conflict in "The Possibility of Evil " takes place within Miss Strangeworth's psyche. A strong desire to look perfect—to have the perfect house, garden, china, and silver, and to appear a sweet, kind, and caring person—rages within against the feelings of anger, resentment, loneliness, and aggression she...

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has tried to repress and stuff down. She has denied her negative feelings to herself for so long that she is not in touch with them in any healthy way. She has let them fester while believing herself to be good and pure. Because of her long family history in the town and her outward look of perfection, she believes she is morally superior to her neighbors.

Psychological issues that are left buried have a way of resurfacing. In Miss Strangeworth's case, they emerge in the form of the anonymous poison-pen letters she sends to fellow townspeople, expressing her vitriol in hurtful terms. She both disassociates herself from the letters, using a different stationary to write them and leaving them unsigned, and rationalizes them as a necessary evil.

Miss Strangeworth is an angry, negative person filled with seething resentments. The story suggests, though it does not state, that her loneliness, lack of having married or had children, and sexual frustration might drive her resentments: for example, she refers to a neighbor's baby as an "idiot" and accuses people of having affairs. Miss Strangeworth is a person in conflict with herself who turns to destructive behavior because she has never accepted or integrated her own shadow side.

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

Miss Strangeworth is the descendant of her town's founders, has a beautiful rose garden on Pleasant Street, and acts as if she is full of kindness, caring, and supportive concern for all her neighbors. Everyone likes her and confides in her, as she presents herself as sweet and comforting.

Miss Strangeworth perceives herself as morally purer than all her neighbors. In fact, she believes it is her role to point out even the possibility that an evil might be happening:

The town where she lived had to be kept clean and sweet, but people everywhere were lustful and evil and degraded, and needed to be watched; the world was so large, and there was only one Strangeworth left in it.

The way Miss Strangeworth performs her task of morally policing the town is by sending people anonymous, poison-pen letters that say vicious, hurtful things. It doesn't matter to her whether what she says is true or false. Writing the letters feels good to her and, to her mind, shows she is weeding out immorality and evil.

The irony is that Miss Strangeworth is actually the source of pain, evil, and suffering in the village because of the letters she writes. They are figments of her imagination—"her letters all dealt with the more negotiable stuff of suspicion"—and show her to be filled with the "wickedness" and "dirty" mindedness she is condemning.

Ironically, Miss Strangeworth can't see any of this. She equates the outer beauty of her life, which she tends through her pretty house, roses, china, and silver, with her inner beauty, but in reality she is filled with ugliness. In a final twist of irony, Miss Strangeworth is so blind to herself that she doesn't realize her roses were destroyed because of her own evil:

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 is the problem in "The Possibility of Evil"?

The problem in "The Possibility of Evil" is that Miss Strangeworth doesn't recognize that she, herself, is the wicked evil in town. She sees herself as the helpful person who keeps her town on the right side of things, yet doesn't comprehend her own wickedness and the malice in her letters.

Miss Strangeworth sends anonymous letters to people in town and uses them to point out what she sees as flaws in their behavior or intentions. She isn't always aware of whether a problem really exists; she considers her letters a way of keeping people on their toes. She thinks that her vigilance is what will banish the evil of the town. People are friendly to her because they don't know she's the one sending the letters that actually cause pain and strife to the residents.

In the end, someone sees her drop one of her letters and delivers it for her. The next morning she wakes up to a letter of her own that indicates her prized roses have been destroyed. Still, Miss Strangeworth doesn't seem to recognize the evil and malice in her own actions and still fully blames the people in her community.

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

The conflict in Shirley Jackson's 1965 short story "The Possibility of Evil" is found within Miss Adela Strangeworth, who believes that the small town where she has resided her whole life "belonged to her." Acting on assumptions she makes based on snippets of conversations, her own observations, and her suspicions regarding other people in town, Miss Strangeworth is compelled to write anonymous letters to manipulate others into sharing her values and beliefs and adopting the behaviors she wishes to see. Miss Strangeworth's controlling behavior is destructive to the lives of others and eventually backfires. Instead of rectifying the missteps of others, she has destabilized what is likely an ordinary town populated, as any town is, by people with all sorts of foibles. In the end, she is called to answer for her controlling and destabilizing behavior because, in fact, the town does not belong to her.

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