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 later classic, "The Lottery", it later became a set work in high school English classes.

Title[edit]

The title of this story bears reference to the malicious and cold-hearted letters that are being circulated around the village in which there is 'no possibility of evil.' This means that the novel is a contrast and that the village, in fact, represents Strangeworth herself, a poor old lady in which there is no trace of cruelty. This is not only a display of dramatic irony, but also a reference of the contrast between us as humans on the inside, and the people we choose to show others.

Plot[edit]

Miss Adela Strangeworth lives on Pleasant Street in her ancestral home. She 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.

Characters[edit]

Miss Strangeworth: Miss Adela Strangeworth is a pensioner living on Pleasant Street, who is pleased with her lifestyle, the rest of the village's respect for her, and, above all, her roses. She often goes into town, is sociable and is liked. However, behind this, she also sends poison pen letters to other members of the village. Many literary critics believe that a great deal of symbolism is in her name. Strangeworth seems to come from stranger, which tells the reader that she is, deep down, a stranger to all of the rest of the village, despite their belief that they know her.

Mr Lewis: A friendly and likable character that Miss Strangeworth sees on her visit around the village. Receives a poison pen letter.

Mrs Harper: Another character who receives a letter from Miss Strangeworth. She is deeply affected and doesn't even desire to talk after the receival.

Dave: A likable boy who accidentally exposes Miss Strangeworth. Critics have commented Dave to be an anti-villain, that is to say, hated in the eyes of the protagonist, yet truly a good person. He has also been commented to be both Miss Strangeworth's savior and her destruction.

Style[edit]

This book often demonstrates many points that are noticeable in other Jackson works: teasing the reader with what the reader knows in comparison to the narrator is shown in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, for example. It is also written with casual style, odd owing to the seriousness of many of the situations. As with The Lottery, many believed this to be non-fiction for precisely this reason. It also deals with the "casual cruelty in the everyday" that Jackson explores in almost all of her short stories.

Themes[edit]

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.

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 begun maturing 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.

"The Possibility of Evil" was once put into an attempt for a movie adaptation, as has happened for The Haunting of Hill House and The Lottery, in which Miss Strangeworth uses her letters to murder those in the community that she believed were preventing it from brilliance. However, it has since been given up on, and many of the intended team for the movie have proceeded to follow other pursuits instead.

However, though the majority of reviews have been indisputably positive, in an article in The Spectator on Jackson, the columnist referred to this being, though above average for her usual work, undeserving of the acclaim that it has gathered, that it gained success only through it being published soon after Jackson's death.

Similarities to other Short Stories by Jackson[edit]

The examples of somebody being two faced can be seen in numerous Jacksons, such as Trial by Combat, The Villager, The Witch, Charles, The Dummy, Of Course, and Got A Letter From Jimmy. The examples of dramatic irony can be found in Charles, Afternoon in Linen and Colloquy.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Boucher, Anthony (1966-05-01). "Criminals At Large". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. p. 335. Retrieved 2008-05-25. 
  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. 
  3. ^ Oates, Joyce Carol (1996-12-29). "Distress Signals". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved 2008-05-25. 

External links[edit]