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

Why does Miss Strangeworth lie about events in her town?

Quick answer:

Miss Strangeworth lies about what happens in her town precisely because she considers it to be "her" town. She is possessive in her attitude towards the town and its inhabitants, and she wants to exercise power over them with her manipulative letters.

Expert Answers

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

Even at the beginning of "The Possibility of Evil," when Miss Strangeworth seems to be a relatively benign and harmless character, there is a faint foreshadowing of the truth when she tells strangers that "she sometimes found herself thinking that the town belonged to her." This idea of...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Miss Strangeworth's possessive, proprietorial attitude towards the town and its people is developed throughout the story, alongside an emphasis on Miss Strangeworth's solitude and the orderliness of her life.

Miss Strangeworth tells lies in her anonymous letters in order to exercise power over the people of the town from her position of solitary privilege. The author's implication is that she has come to see herself as a godlike figure, with the power and even the duty to punish sin. Her sense of morality does not extend to her own actions. Indeed, she believes that she can make up whatever lies she deems necessary to exercise her power over others. As she tells herself,

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.

There is a lack of connection in Miss Strangeworth's mind between her puritanical motives and the obviously immoral methods she uses. Jackson writes that Miss Strangeworth would have described the crude, lying letters as "trash" if confronted with them. However, even at the end of the story, when she is brought face-to-face with her own evil, she fails to recognize it as such.

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

As the title of Shirley Jackson's story suggests, Miss Strangeworth is not actually lying, but only asking questions about the possibility of certain things happening. For example, she has written to the parents of Linda Stewart suggesting the possibility that their daughter may be going too far with her boyfriend Dave Harris. We don't know the text of that letter, but the three letters she writes in the course of the story all contain questions intended to plant seeds of suspicion in the recipient's mind. Miss Strangeworth may truly be having these suspicions herself, so she would not be exactly lying.

She writes to Don Crane:

Didn't you ever see an idiot child before? Some people just shouldn't have children, should they?

She knows that both Don and his wife are worried about their six-month-old daughter's development. Notice the question marks. This old lady is not making accusations but raising questions.

She writes to Mrs. Harper:

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?

Again, questions not statements. Mr. Harris might be having an affair, and everybody in town might know about it. These are possibilities. Miss Strangeworth probably belongs to this bridge club and heard a lot of women laughing about something. 

Miss Strangeworth writes to old Mrs. Foster, who is going to have an operation:

You never know about doctors. Remember they're only human and need money like the rest of us. Suppose the knife slipped accidentally. Would Doctor Burns get his fee and a little extra from that nephew of yours?

Again, there is at least a possibility that Mrs. Foster could die on the operating table and that her nephew would be happy if that happened.

Miss Strangeworth is apparently motivated by the belief that it is her responsibility to look after all the people in her town. Her letters are sincere warnings. In the case of the Cranes, she may be warning them not to have any more babies.

Many people seemed disturbed recently, Miss Strangeworth thought.

This sweet little old lady is really a horrifying woman. She really has no idea how much unhappiness she is causing. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial