Our Plesant Evils: On Shirley Jackson’s “The Possibility of Evil”

In his commencement address to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon college, David Foster Wallace pointed out to students that the most “obvious, important realities” are the most difficult to talk about. They’re the ones in which and by which we live our daily lives. They are the rituals, traditions, pleasantries, and belief systems without which the world as we know it would crumble. Wallace likens the difficulty we face talking about these realities to fish having a conversation about being wet.

Conversations about reality are difficult not because we are out of touch with it, but because we are immersed in it. For example, Wallace says that our “self-centered” interpretation of the world is a reality no one remembers to think about:

…there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor.

Constructive conversations about the realities we’ve forgotten often require a good story. Stories, like reality, are immersive, but they immerse us in a different reality with different rules and different modes of living. Then, like a mirror, they become a way for us to compare and see the things in our own lives that go unnoticed.

Most Recently, I’ve discovered Shirley Jackson, who, in her short story “The Possibility of Evil,” explores the evils perpetuated by our sense of pleasantness—a reality by which we live but no longer examine.

To my shame, I didn’t know anything about Shirley Jackson until I taught her short story to a class of twenty-seven high school sophomores. My first read did not garner much enthusiasm from me because I didn’t “get it.” It seemed too obvious. Miss Strangeworth of Pleasant Street is both strange and pleasant with a weird obsession: scouring her town of possible evil. No secret illicit teenage romance will go unnoticed, or a new mother’s secret worry that her child might be retarded. Without hesitation, Miss Strangeworth sends anonymous handwritten letters to the ignorant related parties warning them of the danger just under their noses. Jackson, however, does not settle for the obvious analogies and ironies.

Throughout the story, Jackson forces the reader to keep asking the question, “what makes Miss Strangeworth strange?” If nothing else, Miss Strangeworth is a jumble of contradictions. She both takes pleasure in the letters she sends, but never wants her name to be associated with their purported suspicion. Miss Strangeworth also believes that cleanliness is next to godliness and that “a clean heart is a scoured heart,” but she herself is a soft, dainty, and fragile old lady who could never withstand her own scouring. The recurring contradictions are strange, yes, but not unheard of.

Instead, it’s the pleasantness of Strangeworth that makes her strange. I asked my students at the beginning of class whether they thought Miss Strangeworth is evil, and I received a resounding “NO!” Their argument was that despite the evil incurred by her letters (insulting children, sabotaging marriages, and frightening people of physicians), Strangeworth has good intentions–she wants the town to be clean of evil. But herein lies the problem: the evil caused by Miss Strangeworth’s letters are not ameliorated by her good intentions. By the end of the story, Miss Strangeworth’s activities are discovered and she receives a fitting punishment.

Jackson’s insight into the nature of evil can be difficult to stomach because it pokes through the facade we all like to maintain: pleasantness and good intentions. In fact, I don’t think Miss Strangeworth is aware of her own evil. Her obsession with her own pleasant way of life has become a blind spot for her as much as it was to my students and me.

In her writing, Jackson is pointing her finger at an obvious, important reality and saying, “See this? It’s causing evil.” So, as one of my students rightly pointed out, if we conclude that Miss Strangeworth is the evil character in the story, then we will have to extend the same judgment to ourselves. With phrases like, “It’s the thought that counts,” we excuse people of misdeeds because we think their intentions are good. Shirley Jackson, on the other hand, suggests that this kind of behavior is a license for evil to run rampant.

After 3 hours of discussion, I left my students with this question: how has our own pleasantness and obsession with appearances blinded us to the evil in our own lives?

It’s the kind of question that can always be asked anew; because we are so soaked in reality, new areas for questioning will always arise. Historically, most of the important social changes occurred when people noticed societal constructs that had gone unexamined. Changes in racial and gender equality are two of the most recent and easiest examples to point to. These changes, however, were (and still are) turbulent because nobody likes to question the things that make life pleasant.

Jackson’s stories are shocking not just because they often end unexpectedly and sometimes brutally, but because they make us see the reality that soaks us. We are not innocent of the reality we’ve forgotten to think about, and Jackson is all too aware of the implications of the ways evil can thrive when we leave it unattended. For further evidence of her awareness, you only need to read her most (in)famous story “The Lottery.”

The process of becoming aware of reality is painful and shocking. When we realize that the pleasant lives we lead are implicated in evil, we must change. Until we realize it, however, we must practice self-reflection—we must read stories and ask questions. “The trick,” as Wallace points out, “is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.” Shirley Jackson helps us through this process; she awakens our awareness of reality by constantly repeating to us, like Wallace, “This is water. This is water.”

David Foster Wallace: Fighting a Culture of “Me”

Unless you’re a devoted fan of NPR or The New Yorker, it’s unlikely that you’ve heard of the late David Foster Wallace. Unbeknownst to many, David Foster Wallace, or “DFW,” as he is sometimes called, was one of the most influential and insightful writers of our age.

Deeply aware of the social illnesses that pervade western society, Wallace aptly articulated our psychological and sociological norms, paying particular attention to the onslaught of media that now encompasses our collective way of life. It is not merely the quality of media for which Wallace articulated concern, though this is part and parcel to his main worry. Wallace was largely disturbed by our generation’s incapacity to endure silence, boredom and self-restraint. To have freedom, he argued in his Kenyon College Commencement Speech, a person must be disciplined:

“Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.

Contrary to modern cultural standards, Wallace articulated a profoundly old truth; arguably, a “natural law” that beckons to the very heart of human existence.

Being an adult requires self-sacrifice, not merely in order so that we may receive future gain, but also so that we might not lose ourselves in the culturally sanctioned decree that we have a right to get what we want, how and when we want it. It is a culture of self that determines personal happiness to be the highest virtue. Wallace adds: “[T]he world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.” But freedom,involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”

Our own Dustin Steeve articulated a similar concern about on-demand technology’s effect on human development and character. We must ask ourselves: how much are we losing by allowing information to flood our every waking minute?

Television and internet were a customary part of my daily routine when I was growing up. Rarely did I wait to be stimulated by entertainment, or forced to put strenuous effort into anything outside of an average school day. Somehow I made it through college in spite of this, and now as I encounter adulthood, I recognize just how difficult it is to choose to confront discipline and boredom for future gain, rejecting the pleasure and ease of immediate gratification.

My experience is in large part a symptom of my generation. The uniqueness of our situation lies in our culture’s devotion to convenience and demands for entertainment. Wallace noted this when he said that while our culture, as times past, is committed to narrative art, “television,” the most prevalent form of narrative today, is of the lowest sort.

It’s a narrative art that strives not to change or enlighten or broaden or reorient—not necessarily even to “entertain”—but merely and always to engage, to appeal to. Its one end—openly acknowledged—is to ensure continued watching.…Television’s greatest appeal is that it is engaging without being at all demanding.

There are many hard working people my age, and yet, the choice to endure hardship has become increasingly “a choice” and less a requirement of which all responsible adults are expected to take part. Our reclaiming of discipline and self-sacrifice as a standard part of adulthood will be essential if we hope to retain our freedom from our “hard-wired default setting” of self-centeredness.

*For those who aren’t familiar with David Foster Wallace, I’d like to briefly acknowledge the fact that his death was openly identified as a suicide. Regardless of the motivations or rationale that accompanied Wallace’s act, the truth of his words remain the same. No matter who participates as the mouth piece for this truth, self-sacrifice and endurance is an objective good. Having said this, we should also admire Wallace for his ability to discern and display what is good; especially as a voice within a society so disposed to keeping truth buried in self-mire. ‘