The Possibility of Evil

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"The Possibility of Evil" is a 1965 short story by Shirley Jackson. Published on December 18, 1965, in the Saturday Evening Post,[1] a few months after her death, it won the 1966 Edgar Allan Poe Award for best mystery short story.[2] It has since been reprinted in the 1996 collection Just an Ordinary Day as well as "Elements of English 10" for high school students.[3]

While not as well-known or read as her 1948 classic, "The Lottery", it later became a set work in high school English classes.


Miss Adela Strangeworth is described prominently as a harmless old lady in the beginning of the story. Through conversations with the people in her town, it is evident that Miss Strangeworth often believes that she owns the town, and has great interest in the townspeople. She also takes great pride in the orderliness of her house, as well as her family roses. However, Miss Strangeworth is not such a quiet figure in her town; she often writes anonymous letters to her neighbors, which are rarely based on fact and more on what gossip she has heard during her walks down the streets. When she is mailing some of them, one is dropped on the ground and one of her neighbors (whom she had once made a subject of her uncouth letters) notices, and, feeling kind, delivers it to the intended recipient (unaware the letter is meant to be anonymous). The next morning, Miss Strangeworth receives a similarly written letter, informing her that her roses, a source of her familial pride, have been destroyed. The story examines many themes, such as a person being two-faced, as well as how a single person can make a mark on a community.


As with The Lottery, many believed this to be fiction for precisely this reason. It also deals with the "casual cruelty in the everyday"[citation needed] that Jackson explores in almost all of her short stories.


This short story explores many themes, usually mentioned in Analysis, such as a person having two sides to them, the dents that people make upon a community, and how they restore them, and the revenge of the fallen.

There is also a frequently commented upon debate on the symbolism of the roses. The most common metaphor is that the roses represent Strangeworth's impression on the rest of the community, how they all respect her. However, upon her discovery, her roses are tarnished. However, some argue that the roses represent the guilt that Strangeworth hides behind a much polished and examined display of non-knowing:They are sweetly fragrant and beautiful, but hide thorns.

Critical reception[edit]

Joyce Carol Oates described the story as 'terrifying' and it is generally regarded as one of Jackson's finest works.

It was commented in an unrelated Daily Telegraph article that this was the point in which Shirley Jackson had reached maturity as an author, a process that began and continued long after the early & famous publication of Jackson's controversial short story, The Lottery. This is a common opinion that has also been voiced by many other admirers of Jackson such as Paul Theroux and Neil Gaiman.

It has even been commented by some critics to be Shirley Jackson's masterpiece, and superior to The Lottery, We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House.


  1. ^ Boucher, Anthony (1966-05-01). "Criminals At Large". The New York Times. p. 335. Retrieved 2008-05-25. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  2. ^ Batts, Grover; McElderry, Michael; McLemee, Scott (1993). "Shirley Jackson: A Register of Her Papers in the Library of Congress" (PDF). American Memory from the Library of Congress. Library of Congress. p. 4. Retrieved 2008-05-25. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  3. ^ Oates, Joyce Carol (1996-12-29). "Distress Signals". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-05-25. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)

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