In this essay, I will examine Shirley Jackson’s use of setting in her short story, “The Possibility of Evil.” I will discuss why Jackson’s choice of a small-town setting is crucial to understanding the plot of her story. I will also consider her implications about the nature of evil and will demonstrate how the author is not at all sympathetic to her main character, Miss Strangeworth. Shirley Jackson is deliberately vague about the setting, leaving the reader free to concentrate instead on the human condition present in the story. Though we are not given a specific time and place or even the name of the town, we are given enough detail to know that it could be any small town. Jackson wants us to understand that the potential for evil exists anywhere and everywhere, even in the smallest, most unlikely and safe-seeming places and people.
Her descriptions are all common but not specific to a small town setting: a park and river; Main Street; a post office; fresh produce from a local townsperson; the library; a soda shop; a small grocery store operated by the second generation of another founding family of the town. Miss Strangeworth knows Mr. Lewis, the grocer, from their younger years in the town: “they had been in high school together and had gone to picnics together, and to high-school dances and basketballs games” (158). Mr. Lewis, in turn, knows the habits of his customers, such as when Miss Strangeworth usually buys her tea. The aged Miss Strangeworth is able to walk wherever she goes in the town; everything is close. There is the coloured paper from the newspaper shop: “everyone in town bought it and used it for odd, informal notes and shopping lists” (162). Additionally, there is the usual small-town gossip. When something happens on one side of town, folks on the other side of town know about it and will speculate about it.
Prices start at $12
Prices start at $11
Prices start at $14
Prices start at $12
“Only yesterday the Stewarts’ fifteen-year-old Linda had run crying down her own front walk and all the way to school, not caring who saw her. People around town thought she might have had a fight with the Harris boy” (160). The people of this town all know each other, and they share a history. The intimacy of the small-town setting is essential in making Jackson’s plot believable. The impact Miss Strangeworth has on the people of this small town would never be as effective, or even possible, in a larger city where folks are not familiar with each other’s history and daily routines. Miss Adela Strangeworth cannot stand anything other than absolute perfection and order, and she is constantly on the lookout for any lack of it. Though Miss Strangeworth is outwardly friendly and proper to everyone she encounters, she is, in reality, examining them for possible flaws. She is herself is a dainty, sweet-looking, and perfectly kept woman. She has never spent more than a single day of her 71 years outside her little town.
She lives in a perfectly ordered home, the very first house on Pleasant Street, built by her grandfather. The Strangeworth family has lived in this house for more than 100 years. Adela feels that were it not for her grandfather, “there wouldn’t have been a town here at all” (157). Because of this, she feels a huge sense of ownership over the town: “This was, after all, her town, and these were her people” (165). As the last living Strangeworth, she feels it is her duty to morally preserve the town. Therefore, Adela makes it her business to know what is going on and all her conversations are to this end. The author gives us plenty of clues along the way to some deeper evil lurking in this sunny little place. We have a sense that things are not as they seem. Many of the townspeople look worried, ill, or unkempt. Also, although Jackson takes great pains to give us a sense of a close-knit, little community, Miss Strangeworth locks her doors in a contrasting act of mistrust. And, though she is outwardly a gracious and caring person, Adela is reluctant to share her beautiful roses with any of the townspeople.
She feels her roses belong on only Pleasant Street, where they have always been, and that those who might ask for them are being simply rude and lack understanding of her roses as an important symbol of the town’s purity and perfection. In Miss Strangeworth’s mind, she is the only one deserving of such purity and perfection. She hoards their lovely scent to herself, putting bowls of them all over her own house. We begin to see that something is not quite right about this woman. When we learn of Miss Strangeworth’s vile and hateful letters and how long she has been writing them, “sometimes two or three every day for a week, sometimes no more than one in a month – for the past year” (163), the true possibility of evil is fully revealed to us, contrasted nicely in the form of what appears to be a sweet old woman in a sunny and pleasant small town.
Adela Strangeworth believes she is fighting the possibility of evil that exists and is just waiting to reveal itself in all humans. If she can nip this potential for evil in the bud, so to speak, she will have done her duty of preserving the perfect, ordered sanctity of her small town. However, she ironically displays the very evil nature that she seeks to eradicate. She knows in her heart that her letters are morally wrong because she is so secretive about them. She keeps her desk locked up, makes her letters anonymous, and burns all drafts. Adela doesn’t care about the truth: “Miss Strangeworth never concerned herself with facts; her letters all dealt with the more negotiable stuff of suspicion” (162). She feels fully entitled to use real evil to fight perceived evil. In this way, I don’t feel the author is at all sympathetic to the main character or portrays her as well-intentioned. Miss Strangeworth does not feel any remorse over her evil acts of letter writing and their affect on her victims; on the contrary, she “awakened the next morning with a feeling of intense happiness and, for a minute wondered why, and then remembered that this morning three people would open her letters” (167).
One would think that after an entire year of writing hateful letters to the very townspeople she feels responsible for morally saving, that their worried faces might begin to bother her, even just a little. But Miss Strangeworth does not seem bothered at all. She likes writing her letters and would outright lie if asked if she wrote such trash. She is so completely convinced of her righteousness superiority that she either doesn’t recognize herself as the cause of all the worry and unrest in the townsfolk, or she simply doesn’t care. Her end justifies her means. Thus, when she is exposed as the nasty letter writer and someone in turn anonymously destroys her lovely and perfect roses, we feel she deserves exactly what she gets. Adela has brought this retribution upon herself. The wickedness of the world that she cries silently about at the end of the story is the very same wickedness that she incubates and breeds within herself. It’s hard to feel sorry for someone like that, even if she is a little old lady.