“The Possibility of Evil”: Short Story Summary and Analysis

Miss Strangeworth

From reading the story, it is apparent that Miss Strangeworth has both and outward and an inward social value system. In the outset, it comes to light that her belief system may have been a result of a family tradition. For instance, Miss Strangeworth tells the tourists who stop to view her roses that her grandmother planted the roses in her garden and that her mother tended to them just as she does now.

Here, we see that Miss Strangeworth is traditional and that a value did indeed pass on down to her, which is gardening. Therefore, it is possible that other traditions such as her contrasting social value systems were also passed on down to her.

Additionally, Miss Strangeworth says that since she is the only Strangeworth left, it is her duty to rid the town of evil. This implies that the previous generations of Strangeworths also had a similar objective as her. Now, it becomes obvious that she did in fact receive her social value systems from her family. Miss Strangeworth decided to take up her family’s belief system, and continue the role of the Strangeworth.

Outward Social Value System

When out in town, Miss Strangeworth behaves towards the townspeople with her outward social value system. What is meant by her outward social value system is that Miss Strangeworth treats others friendly and politely. In other words, she behaves towards others in a way she knows is accepted in society.

For instance, when walking down Main Street on a summer morning, Miss Strangeworth stops every minute or so to say good morning to someone or to ask after someone’s health. We see that she goes about in a friendly and courteous manner. Hence, Miss Strangeworth wants to establish a favourable image in town. Furthermore, when she enters the grocery store, half a dozen people turn away from the shelves and counters to wave at her or call out good morning. Apparently, the people already know her for her seemingly friendly ways.

Also in the store, Miss Strangeworth meets Mr. Lewis and Mrs. Harper. When she looks at them closely, she notices that something is not right about them. Yet, she still behaves towards them normally by conversing politely with them, and not voicing her thoughts. To Mr. Lewis and Mrs. Harper, she greets them with a simple “Good morning.” In addition, after leaving the grocery store, Miss Strangeworth meets Helen Crane and her baby. During their conversation together, Helen Crane mentions her child’s unusual motionless. However, Miss Strangeworth waves off her comment saying that all babies are different, knowing that this is what Helen Crane wants to hear. On the other hand, along with an outward social value system, Miss Strangeworth also has an inward social value system.

Inward Social Value System

Although Miss Strangeworth acts a certain way around the townspeople, she also has another social value system—an inward, personal one. In her inward social value system, Miss Strangeworth holds her personal opinions about the townspeople. Unfortunately, her inward social value system usually has a negative aspect to it. As a result, she never openly shares her thoughts.

For example, when Miss Strangeworth was in the grocery store with Mrs. Harper, her personal thoughts contrasted greatly with her polite greeting. Miss Strangeworth notices that Miss. Harper’s hands are shaking slightly when she opens her pocketbook. From this unusual motion, she wonders whether Mrs. Harper is taking proper care of herself. On her way home, Miss Strangeworth meets Miss Chandler, the librarian, and talks about the new novels to be ordered and paid for by the annual library appropriation.

Although she seems to be striking a normal conversation, Miss Strangeworth is concentrating more on Miss Chandler herself. She notices that Miss Chandler seems absent-minded and disturbed. However, she keeps to herself and continues on her way.

When she arrives home, Miss Strangeworth begins doing something to express her personal thoughts to the townspeople—letter writing. Miss Strangeworth writes letters to those she thinks needs her advice, which is based on her opinions and thoughts from her inward social value system. However, Miss Strangeworth never signs her name on the letters, to remain anonymous. She knows that her letters are harsh, but thinks them necessary to rid the town of evil.

For example, the first letter she writes is to Don Crane, in which she insults his daughter for her lack of movements and implies that he and his wife are not meant to have children. From this message, we see a large contrast to the polite comment she made on the Crane baby earlier. Evidently, there is a great difference between her outward and inward social value systems, in which the outward is her pleasant side and the inward is her bitter side.

Second Letter

Miss Strangeworth’s second letter is to Mrs. Harper. She writes asking her if she knows why she has been laughed at once she left the bridge club, or if she was the last one to know, being the wife. Although the details of this event are not given to the reader, it is still obvious that Miss Strangeworth knows about it and thus writes the letter from a personal viewpoint. Through the letter, she questions Mrs. Harper’s attentiveness and mindfulness.

Rather than questioning here face-to-face in the grocery store, she does it through an anonymous letter. The last letter Miss Strangeworth writes is to Mrs. Foster. She advises Mrs. Foster not to do her operation because Doctor Burns might stage a supposed accident to make money. In this letter, not only is Miss Strangeworth intruding on Mrs. Foster’s personal affairs, she is also branding Doctor Burns as an untrustworthy doctor.


The Possibility of Evil by Shirley Jackson