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The Possibility of Evil

by Shirley Jackson

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

Quick answer:

At first, the mood in "The Possibility of Evil" is bright and happy. As the story progresses, however, the mood becomes rather sinister.

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The story begins on a clear summer's morning in what seems to be a quiet, peaceful town. We are told that the sun is shining and that the air is "fresh and clear." We are also told that, because it had rained the night before, everything now looks "washed and bright." As we follow the main character, Miss Strangeworth, we see her stop regularly to say good morning to her neighbors and ask after their health. Miss Strangeworth seems for the most part like a well-meaning and harmless old lady.

The mood of the story, at the beginning, thus seems bright and cheerful. It is not long, however, before the reader questions this seemingly happy mood. The grocer, for example, looks "worried" and "very tired indeed," and Mrs. Harper's hands shake as she opens her pocketbook, making Miss Strangeworth question "if she had been taking proper care of herself." Miss Strangeworth also remembers that

only yesterday the Stewarts’ fifteen-year-old Linda had run crying down her own front walk.

Through small, seemingly incidental descriptions like these, the reader begins to realize that there is something not quite right in this small town, and the bright, cheerful mood begins to look suspiciously like a facade hiding something sinister beneath.

Later in the story, these suspicions are confirmed as we learn that the elderly Miss Strangeworth spends her free time writing nasty letters to her neighbors. She writes one to Mrs. Harper, for example, which reads:

HAVE YOU FOUND OUT YET WHAT THEY WERE ALL LAUGHING ABOUT AFTER YOU LEFT THE BRIDGE CLUB ON THURSDAY? OR IS THE WIFE REALLY THE LAST ONE TO KNOW?

Miss Strangeworth writes these letters, anonymously, to deliberately upset and unsettle her neighbors, all of whom seem to think that she is a harmless, if rather prissy elderly lady. When we realize what Miss Strangeworth is doing, the mood of the story changes altogether from happy and bright to sinister and dark.

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An emotion like “happy” could be described with over-the-top feeling, as “exuberant” or with a more subdued connotation, as “content.” Likewise, the mood of a story can be identified through the specific word choices and literary devices a writer uses to create a definite and identifiable feeling in the reader throughout the story. The mood of a story can be somewhat subjective for individual readers. Yet, a close reading and a brief literary analysis of the writer’s specific word choices relative to the theme or central conflict of the story support mere opinion.

Specific words and phrases in Shirley Jackson’s “The Possibility of Evil” indicate a mood of foreboding. This mood begins in the title and continues throughout the narrative to an almost foregone conclusion. The word “evil” in the title immediately invokes the classic literary theme of a battle of good vs. evil. It invites the reader to contemplate how the nature of and perceptions of “evil” will be explored in the story.

The battle between good and evil plays out throughout the story in lines such as, “as long as evil existed unchecked in the world, it was Miss Strangeworth’s duty to keep her town alert to it.” Arguably, this line indicates the central conflict of the story in somewhat religious overtones. Miss Strangeworth is beyond the stereotypical town busybody. The character is portrayed as very judgmental and, in fact, hypocritical. Jackson skillfully sets up the reader to wonder and to contemplate the moral and ethical paradoxes evident in the character’s actions. Further, the phrase tempts readers to discover what will happen in the course of events relative to the character’s judgments. Again, Jackson’s skillful setup of the mood of the story can be described as foreboding.

The choice of the word “foreboding” to describe the mood of the story is largely subjective. However, by looking closely at words and phrases in the story that reveal Miss Strangeworth’s character, any adjective similar to “foreboding” will likely describe the mood of “The Possibility of Evil.”  ENotes includes several resources for literary analysis of the story. Happy reading!

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How does the mood in "The Possibility of Evil" change from the beginning to end?

Shirley Jackson's "The Possibility of Evil" is similar to her story "The Lottery." In both the mood begins on a tranquil, commonplace, everyday note and gradually becomes more ominous until it is downright sinister at the end. Miss Strangeworth seems like a nice little old lady going about her simple daily routine in a peaceful town where she has lived all her life. She notices some signs of uneasiness and even distress in people she encounters. For example, Mr. Lewis the grocer seems troubled.

Mr. Lewis looked worried, she thought, and for a minute she hesitated, but then she decided that he surely could not be worried over the strawberries. He looked very tired indeed. He was usually so chipper.

Teenage Linda Stewart seems especially troubled. The reader is beginning to wonder what is going on in this little town. It is almost as if clouds are gathering and spreading their shadows all around. Shirley Jackson excels in evoking such darkening mood changes.

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, not caring who saw her. People around town thought she might have had a fight with the Harris boy, but they showed up together, at the soda shop after school as usual, both of them looking grim and bleak. Trouble at home, people concluded, and sighed over the problems of trying to raise kids right these days.

We will learn later than Miss Strangeworth had sent one of her anonymous letters to Linda's parents hinting that their daughter was having illicit relations with her boyfriend Dave Harris.

Then the mood gets really dark when the reader begins to realize that it is Miss Strangeworth who is creating most of the troubles with her anonymous letters. The author presents the texts of three of these letters and reveals the little old lady's sinister technique of spreading fear, suspicion, and enmity among the people she knows so well. The mood at this point is comparable to that of "The Lottery" when the reader begins to realize that this drawing is something that everybody in the town dreads. In "The Possibility of Evil" it is Miss Strangeworth herself who is the victim. Her letter to Don Crane gets hand-carried to him because she drops it accidentally at the post office. Now he knows the author of the other poison-pen letter regarding his baby which his wife recently received. Miss Strangeworth succeeds in bringing out the evil in this nice, easygoing small-town man. He destroys her prize rose bushes in the middle of the night and leaves her to wonder who might have done it. 

The mood in "The Possibility of Evil" begins in brightness and ends in darkness, just as in "The Lottery." The author's intention in both stories seems to be to illustrate the fact that there really is evil in human nature, and perhaps especially where it is least expected, in small-town America where people seem so neighborly and innocuous. In "The Lottery" the entire town participates in stoning a lone woman to death. In "The Possibility of Evil" it is the lone woman who victimizes an entire town.

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