The Possibility of Evil Summary

Shirley Jackson

The Possibility of Evil

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The Possibility of Evil Summary

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“The Possibility of Evil” is a mystery short story by American author Shirley Jackson. First published in The Saturday Evening Post in December of 1965, it won the Edgar Allen Poe Award for the following year. The story follows a seemingly innocuous elderly lady, Miss Adela Strangeworth, and gradually reveals how she actively intervenes in her town’s social life through manipulative anonymous letters. “The Possibility of Evil” focuses on the vice of duplicity, the effects of gossip, and the ironic distinctions between public and private lives in suburban America.

The story begins on Pleasant Street, where Miss Strangeworth lives in a home passed down through her family for generations. The unreliable narrator describes her at face value, as a beloved, if quiet, member of her town. Miss Strangeworth is heavily invested in everyone’s lives, though she interacts with her neighbors mostly in passing. The narrator explains that Miss Strangeworth is a little possessive of the town and believes that is her purpose to shape and monitor it. Miss Strangeworth is also obsessed with maintaining order in her own home and puts particular effort into maintaining a bed of roses that her family has kept alive for decades.

As the story progresses, Miss Strangeworth reveals herself to be less reserved than she is publicly perceived. She maintains a hobby of writing anonymous letters to people in her town, which are often purely fictional or based on hearsay. The epistolary gossip has made its way around town for years, troubling its residents but giving them no recourse for challenging them. All this changes when, one day, Miss Strangeworth walks to her mailbox to send out a stack of letters and mistakenly drops one without noticing. One of her younger neighbors witnesses the letter fall and hand-delivers it to Don Crane on her behalf. The neighbor, Dave Harris, has no idea that she was the one who once sent his girlfriend’s parents a letter insinuating that she is being promiscuous. The dropped letter tells Don Crane and his wife that their newborn child is an idiot, and that “SOME PEOPLE JUST SHOULDN’T HAVE CHILDREN SHOULD THEY?”

The next morning, Miss Strangeworth receives a reply from Don in the mail. It reads, in a similar style to her own letters, “LOOK OUT AT WHAT USED TO BE YOUR ROSES.” She looks out into her garden and is horrified to see that someone has destroyed her precious rose beds. Miss Strangeworth fails to learn her lesson, concluding that all the evil she has imagined in the town is merely confirmed. She never realizes that someone may have figured out the identity of the anonymous letter writer. The Possibility of Evil provides insight into the minds and attitudes of duplicitous people, suggesting that the negative energy they put in the world comes back, karma-like, by coloring their own sense of reality.