The Possibility of Evil is a spellbindingly short story written by the American writer, Shirley Hardie Jackson. It was first published in the year 1965, in the American Magazine called “Saturday Evening Post”. The short story focuses on the details of a day in the life of the seventy-one-year-old woman, Miss Adela Strangeworth, within a third-person narrative. The Possibility of Evil engages with the theme of casual cruelty that gets interspersed into the “normal” lifestyle of Miss Strangeworth as another element of day-to-day activity. Such an element of casual cruelty resonates within the story to produce a domestic horror short story.
The Possibility of Evil | Summary
The short story begins with the introduction of the lovely Miss Strangeworth as she steps out “daintily” toward Main Street to shop for groceries. She carries on with her walk thinking to herself about her own little town, washed and cleared after the night’s rain, bestowing the day with a shade of nice perfect “fragrant summer”. Miss Strangeworth is portrayed prominently as a seventy-one-year-old gregarious woman who loves to converse with the tourists while embodying all the wonder in her blue eyes about how she believes she owns the whole town. These tourists were strangers who stopped to admire the pretty roses that Miss Strangeworth so carefully looked after and therefore, she refused to give them away to anyone because like she belonged to her town, these roses too belonged to the town of Pleasant Street only.
Most of her walks are thrown in with little conversations that she has with her townspeople. As a matter of fact, when Miss Strangeworth steps into the grocery, “half a dozen people” turn their eyes towards her to have small talk. Finally, she greets Mr. Lewis, who runs the grocery store, and Miss Strangeworth is quick to notice his distressed face. But she moves on to make space for the next customer in line, Mrs. Martha Harper. Here, once again, Miss Strangeworth observes the trembling hands and thinks to herself that Martha should take care of herself much more nicely.
Miss Strangeworth comes out of the grocery store but only to meet up with more townspeople. She stops to smile at the Crane baby, whose parents, Helen and Don Crane were “the two most infatuated young parents she had ever known”. Helen worriedly points out to Miss Strangeworth that it has been six months, yet the baby has not started moving around. But Miss Strangeworth merely dismisses it by telling her that all babies are different and some of them take much more time than others to develop. As she moves along, Miss Strangeworth, once again briefly pauses to talk with Miss Chandler, the librarian, observing another harrowing and absent-minded face. She thought to herself, “Many people seemed disturbed recently”.
Miss Strangeworth walks back to her own house but before entering through the gates, she stops one more time. But this time, to look at the “Strangeworth House on Pleasant Street” and beam with pride at their orderliness and discipline. Upon arriving at her house, Miss Strangeworth decides against having tea and proceeds to write letters but prints them in “childish block print”. At this moment, we understand that these letters are anonymous vicious letters addressed to the townspeople. These letters are not based on any facts but upon “negotiable stuff of suspicion”. In this manner, Miss Strangeworth writes letters to Don Crane telling him that his child might be “an idiot child”, to Miss Chandler about the suspicious death of the first wife of the man she is seeing now, to Linda Stewart’s parents about the possible relationship between their daughter and the Harris boy.
After she gets done with her letters and all of her other chores, Miss Strangeworth gets going towards the post office. At the post office, she sees Linda crying and overhears her conversation with the Harris boy and she confirms her suspicion that they were in a relationship. Miss Strangeworth quickly posts her letters but unknown to her, one of the letters out of the three that she posted, falls to the ground. The Harris boy notices this and picks it up to deliver it to the recipient, Don Crane.
The next morning, Miss Strangeworth gets up feeling immensely great, probably because of the perfect letters she wrote yesterday. As she walks downstairs, she notices an envelope on the floor of her dining room, oddly familiar to one of her own letters. She unfolds the envelope and silently starts crying as she reads out the contents of the letter: “Look out at what used to be your roses”.
The Possibility of Evil | Analysis
Jackson constructs the essence of the genre, horror fiction, in The Possibility of Evil around the theme of cruelty that gets manifested in the casual common life of Miss Strangeworth. Such an ordinary, more than an extraordinary, association with the element of brutality, spooks any reader and as a result, to consider this short story as terrifying. Moreover, the short story goes on to evoke the persisting cruelty in the town of Pleasant Street to be the prominently harmless old woman, Miss Strangeworth.
At first appearance, Miss Adela Strangeworth seems to be the protagonist of the story who embodies a rhythm of gracefulness, and even more, she is loved by the townspeople for her sociable and lovable nature, adding to her heroic traits. However, as soon as we understand that she lives a double life among her townsfolk, Miss Strangeworth immediately becomes the antagonist as well. The spiteful letters she writes anonymously are all contents of suspicions collected from her conversations with the townspeople. Probably, the reason for her love for conversing with them. For instance, she discerns from her conversation with Helen Crane that Don Crane doesn’t know about the fact that his baby has been a little late and slow in moving around, and hence, such a suspicion becomes the subject matter of Miss Strangeworth’s anonymous letter. Her antagonistic nature is heightened even more by the fact that she only recognizes the potential badness inhabiting the townspeople as she stops to converse with them. Such a selfish perspective of Miss Strangeworth, which will favor only her vicious habit of writing letters, is clearly sketched and evoked in the short story.
However, from all of this, the narration resists deducting the characteristic of Miss Strangeworth as inherently evil. The short story does not manifest any particular intention or any kind of evil motive behind her actions. Miss Strangeworth was more or less shallow and clueless about the cruelty that was being added to her casual habit of writing letters. All Miss Adela Strangeworth thought was, “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”. Herein, the writer evokes the banality of evil, proposed by Hannah Arendt.
In The Possibility of Evil, such an idea of the banality of evil gets foregrounded with the characterization of Miss Strangeworth. The narration dismisses any definition of inherent monstrosity or inhumanness to be given to her character nor does her age of seventy-one-year-old woman suggest any capability of a criminal mastermind. Therefore, invoking the inherent randomness that follows brutality.
The Possibility of Evil — Themes
In bringing forth the notion of the banality of evil, the short story not only manifests casual cruelty but also echoes the shades of the theme of totalitarianism, precisely the act of exercising an extreme kind of control over the personal lives of the townsfolk. Miss Strangeworth interrupts their private lives in the name of the possible existence of evil. But her interruptions are based on purely suspicions because “Miss Strangeworth never concerned herself with facts”. Such a background is made evident in the narration at the point, where she arrives at the post office to see Linda and the Harris boy, Dave Harris, in conversation with each other. This makes her wonder, “so she was talking to the Harris boy”, clearly evoking a mere confirmation of her earlier suspicion, as Miss Strangeworth had written anonymous letters to Linda’s parents way before this incident happened. This is indicated in the lines, “Linda Stewart’s parents would have gone unsuspectingly ahead with their lives, never aware of the possible evil lurking nearby, if Miss Strangeworth had not sent a letter to open their eyes”. Therefore, clearing out and keeping in check the presence of evil makes her feel accomplished and proud because, “as long as evil existed unchecked in the world, it was Miss Strangeworth’s duty to keep her town alert to it”.
As she keeps in check the possibility of evil among her townspeople, she acts as a sort of panopticon within whom, the townspeople receive a certain degree of surveillance in order to impose a disciplinary way of living. Such a desire towards discipline is evoked around a sense of feeling of “a deep pleasure”, Miss Strangeworth receives, from looking at the orderliness of 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…”.
However, such a habit of writing remorseless anonymous letters that implants fear and doubt among people, only leads to an act of revenge, another significant theme in this short story. The theme of revenge is embodied within the destruction of the roses that represented and were symbolic of Miss Strangeworth’s pride and reputation that foregrounded and asserted her dominance over Pleasant Street with respect to belongingness. As she indulges in telling the tourists that her grandfather had built the first-ever house on this street, she also points out that from that time on, the roses lived with her ancestors. Therefore, the roses evoke a sense of belongingness that bestows Miss Strangeworth with a dominant symbol of power.
The Possibility of Evil — Literary Devices
Jackson shrewdly uses the technique of an extended metaphor to suggest a modern world surrounded by infinite surveillance that produces a totalitarian order of reality with that of the small world of Pleasant Street. Miss Strangeworth might act as the terrifying figure of a totalitarian government that obsesses over discipline and order. Such use of literary devices becomes more enhanced through the device of juxtaposition between the role of duty embodied by Miss Strangeworth to discern any possible evil and the orderliness of her house, symbolic of her imagination that expects Pleasant Street to embody.
Moreover, the use of symbolism of the roses is evidently employed in the short story. Roses can be used to express their dual nature of beauty with thorns which can be seen as symbolic of the character of Miss Strangeworth, who is described as harmless and positive at the beginning of the short story. However, we discern her characterization to be deceptive and abundant with thorns.
The Possibility of Evil — Character Sketch
Miss Adela Strangeworth— the protagonist and at the same time, the antagonist of The Possibility of Evil. As we begin to read the story, the narrator tricks us into believing we are following up a tale of light-hearted accounts of narratives. But at the end of the story, as Miss Strangeworth’s characterization reveals to be selfish, vicious, and brutal, the narration unfolds as a horror short story. She is portrayed as a predator who feeds on the potential badness of her townspeople, such as, at one moment she discerns the “sloppiness” manifested in Miss Chandler. Yet, Miss Strangeworth is a shallow figure who is unknown of the possible damage that she causes among people, as a result of her evil and vicious letters.
The Possibility of Evil — Title of the Story
The title of the story bestows the readers with a brief insight into the context of the narration. The word, “possibly” connotes an idea of probability. This can be suggestive of the vicious letters that are based on suspicions or the fact that all of them evoke only probabilities of the presence of evil. Moreover, the title achieves more significance, as a matter of fact, in the idea that the narration of the story is driven by the possibility of evil or even more, the factor that encourages Miss Strangeworth to write letters was the possibility of evil.