The Possibility of Evil

by

Shirley Jackson

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The Possibility of Evil Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Shirley Jackson's The Possibility of Evil. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson was raised in a ritzy suburb of San Francisco by Leslie and Geraldine Jackson. Jackson began writing at a young age and she published her first story—“Janice”—while attending Syracuse University in New York. In 1940, after graduating college, Jackson married Stanley Edgar Hyman, a literary critic, and moved to North Bennington, Vermont where she spent most of her life. From 1940 onward, Jackson wrote constantly, a process which culminated in her first novel—The Road Through the Wall—in 1948. 1948 proved to be an important year for Jackson as she also published “The Lottery,” her most famous story, in The New Yorker on June 26th. “The Lottery” proved to be quite controversial, but it made a literary star out of Jackson, and over the next two decades she produced a number of important works, including The Haunting of Hill House (1959), We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), and “The Possibility of Evil” (1965). Jackson’s stories and novels won her much acclaim, including an O. Henry Award for “The Lottery” and a National Book Award nomination for The Haunting of Hill House. Jackson’s contemporaries praised her as a master of gothic literature and an incisive critic of American values. Jackson died in 1965 of a heart issue at only 48 years old. At the time of her death, she was working on a new novel, which was eventually published in a collection of her previously unreleased works called Come Along with Me.
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Historical Context of The Possibility of Evil

Shirley Jackson’s work—including “The Possibility of Evil”—is generally read against the background of American society in the decades following World War II. During this time period, America defined itself as the de facto superpower of the world and its economy reached heights never seen before. Such economic prosperity led to a new standard of living for many Americans, symbolized by “white picket fence” homes and neighborhoods. The ideal American life became living in a pristine suburban neighborhood surrounded by friends and family. Of course, this lifestyle was not truly available to everyone, and even for those who did achieve it, things were not actually perfect. In Jackson’s fiction, this idealized image of American life is often depicted but soon discarded in favor of something much more sinister.

Other Books Related to The Possibility of Evil

Shirley Jackson often wrote in the Gothic tradition, which began in England with works like The Castle of Otranto (1764) and made its way to America via the stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Stories such as Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” (1835) and Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843) are classics in the American Gothic tradition. Worries about sin and perversity are a constant theme in works by Hawthorne and Poe, and this thread runs directly through to Shirley Jackson’s “The Possibility of Evil.” Other Gothic works by Jackson include “The Lottery” and “When Things Get Dark.” Like “The Possibility of Evil,” “The Lottery” is interested in critiquing a certain class of mid-century Americans who project a pristine image while concealing the darkness within themselves. Meanwhile, “Things Get Dark” is another story by Jackson where letter-writing plays a key role and evil sits just beneath the surface. The American Gothic tradition—now suffused with Jackson’s influence—continues to play out in the present day through works such as The Shining by Stephen King and them by Joyce Carol Oates.
Key Facts about The Possibility of Evil
  • Full Title: The Possibility of Evil
  • When Written: 1958
  • Where Written: North Bennington, Vermont
  • When Published: December 18, 1965
  • Literary Period: Postwar American Fiction
  • Genre: Short Story, Gothic Fiction, Domestic Horror
  • Setting: An unnamed American town in the mid-20th century
  • Climax: Don Crane ruins Miss Strangeworth’s flowers.
  • Antagonist: Miss Strangeworth
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for The Possibility of Evil

Posthumous Award-Winner. “The Possibility of Evil” was not originally published until more than four months after Shirley Jackson’s death. Despite this, it went on to become one of her most acclaimed stories and won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best mystery short story in 1966.

Witchcraft. Throughout her life, Shirley Jackson maintained an interest in witchcraft and filled her personal library with hundreds of books on the subject. Jackson even played up rumors that she practiced witchcraft, although her friends and biographers all agree that this was merely a publicity stunt.