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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The Possibility of Evil Themes

The main themes in “The Possibility of Evil” are appearances versus reality, isolation and privilege, and the ubiquity of evil.

  • Appearances versus reality: The story explores the tensions between Miss Strangeworth’s outward appearance and her secret habit of writing anonymous  poison pen letters.
  • Isolation and privilege: Miss Strangeworth’s isolation is a direct result of both her familial privilege and her belief that she is different from—and better than—the townspeople.
  • The ubiquity of evil: Shirley Jackson emphasizes that evil is not necessarily grand or overarching. In fact, evil can be as unassuming as cruel letters written by a lonely woman.

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Appearances Versus Reality

The appearance Miss Adela Strangeworth presents to the world is that of a kind, attentive, and friendly old lady of good reputation. Shirley Jackson emphasizes this in her choice of names: Adela is convinced of her own strange worth as the descendant of the man who first established the street on which she lives. She lives on Pleasant Street, a place where it is difficult to imagine anything evil or untoward taking place. The appearance of her house is something in which she takes enormous pride, and she pauses to appreciate not only the roses she cultivates so lovingly but also the outward aspect of the house itself, which is “slim” and attractive. Miss Strangeworth likes pretty things; even her writing paper, pen, and letter openers are well-made and beautiful. At the beginning of the story, there is no indication that the well-to-do Miss Strangeworth, who knows everybody and inquires after the health of everyone she meets, might be hiding a dark secret.

It quickly becomes clear that things are not what they seem and that the image Miss Strangeworth has built is artificial. When she expresses concern to Helen Crane and apparently seeks to assuage Helen’s fears about the development of her child, Miss Strangeworth comports herself as an interested old lady; later, however, the letter she writes to Helen is simply cruel. Similarly, she presents herself as a dedicated gardener who carefully tends the roses that grow outside her house, but her attachment to them actually conceals a darker element within her. She doesn’t like to think of giving any of the roses away, because there is a sense that others are undeserving of something so beautiful.

In public, Miss Strangeworth seems to be an unassuming elderly woman; she keeps her crusade to wipe out wickedness in the town secret. What Miss Strangeworth seems not to understand is that she herself is the architect of most of the town’s unhappiness. When Linda Stewart flees crying down the street, for example—a behavior Miss Strangeworth abhors—it is not a presentation of moral decay but the direct result of Miss Strangeworth’s own actions.

Isolation and Privilege

Why does Miss Strangeworth behave the way that she does? A spinster in her seventies, she seems to lead a lonely life. Although she knows everybody in the town, she is unable to integrate with them. She thinks of herself as “Miss” Strangeworth, an honorific which imposes a layer of separation between herself and those she interacts with on a daily basis. She has taken it upon herself to be the moral guardian of the town, because there is “only one Strangeworth” remaining there. Miss Strangeworth thinks of the town as belonging to her, rather than of herself as belonging to it; as a result, she does not imagine herself in the same category as the other inhabitants.

Miss Strangeworth’s loneliness seems to have driven her to write her letters. She must know, on some level, that what she is doing does not benefit people, or else she would not feel the need to leave the letters unsigned and post them late at night. However, she enjoys writing them and has convinced herself that it is her duty to make sure everybody in town is aware of the “wickedness” around them. By writing these letters, Miss Strangeworth is able to involve herself directly in the life of the town, which she has never truly felt part of. For a hundred years, the Strangeworth family has been removed from the life of ordinary people; writing the destructive letters is Miss Strangeworth’s only real means of having a direct effect on anybody’s life.

At the end of the story, Jackson implies that Miss Strangeworth’s roses have been destroyed in an act of revenge. This is highly symbolic, because the roses are the outward representation of not only Miss Strangeworth’s privilege but also her isolation. She pours all her energies into loving the roses as a means of keeping herself connected to her family history: after all, she has nothing and nobody else to love. At the same time, the roses—which she will not allow others to take from her property—are a barrier between her, in her privileged isolation, and the rest of the town. The roses make Miss Strangeworth’s house appear beautiful, like the sort of place where evil could not possibly live, but they also demarcate the line between privilege and normality.

The Ubiquity of Evil

The title of Jackson’s story points towards one of its underlying themes: there is, in every town and every person, “the possibility of evil.” Jackson deliberately presents the town in her story as an idyllic one, a manifestation of the American dream filled with roses, mom-and-pop grocery stores, and close-knit communities in which everybody knows each other. As the story progresses, though, it becomes clear that the inhabitants of this town are not happy. Miss Strangeworth seems to believe that this indicates a decline in the town’s fortunes; it is becoming increasingly rife with evil, she thinks, and it is her duty to stamp it out.

The reader understands, however, that the townspeople are unhappy not because of inherent “evil” among them, but because of what Miss Strangeworth has told them. In trying to stamp out evil, Miss Strangeworth is, in fact, perpetuating it. Evil need not be something ominous and terrible that strikes from afar. On the contrary, even the quiet acts of one isolated old lady in a small town can hold the possibility of evil.

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