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.”

Let Writers Be Unashamed of Having Homemade Imaginations

In my last article, I gave a broad overview of interest-based living .  This follows with a specific instance of an unfolding interest that has actually resulted deeper immersion in my communities and greater liberty as an artist.

Writing strong short stories is a recent interest of mine, but it is I was unintentionally prepared for. I come from a small hometown and a tight-knit family. I picked up on lots of the details about the culture of my immediate and local surroundings.  Happily, I discovered that short story fiction reads best when they simmer with an indigenous flavor. Why is that so? Well, there’s this instinctual, three-part code that raises the short-story writer from infancy. Its persistent purpose is one thing; keeping the story poignant and sincere by grounding it local culture.

Dialogue is sifted through filters called ‘dialects’ 

It makes for irretrievably bland reading when characters time their words, pursue ideas, and cuss with undifferentiated style. It’s suspicious. Maybe the characters are just surrogates for the author’s pet thought projects. After all, experience shows us that conversations are not under the control of one mind and we wouldn’t enjoy them if they were. The author can defer to that by giving each character its own dialect; its own distinct pattern of funneling thoughts into words and words into sentences. These patterns are the foundation of dialect.

Dialects are languages within languages. Think of the genteel verbal graces of a Southerner or the contrasting caterwaul of a bog-dwelling hick. Whereas an actor relies on the sound of the accent for embellishment, a writer configures his words precisely so that a sounding accent is irrelevant. It’s simply felt in the word choices. The process is to mull between, say, what characters repeat and what they would never say, whether they always speak in complete sentences and why they say “gender” not “sex.” All these sorts of differentiating decisions intensify each character with a habitual, ingrained dialect.

Characters are in behavior, not postures.

Sometimes you read a story where you can’t stop visualizing everyone in some sort of pose. They aren’t moving anywhere or handling anything. Unless the majority of us grew up in photo shoots and fashion shows, that isn’t what we are accustomed to expect from humans, especially in the current age where we even greet each other with salutations to our busyness.

“How are you?”

“Doing this, this and this thanks.”

“I see. I as well. That’s actually why I have to go…”

Plausibility emerges when characters are doing things: washing the dishes, defacing public monuments, putting on wedding veils, etc. Characters are attempts to represent people; they deserve a psyche outfitted with the ordinary, common stuff of birthplaces, families, and favorite foods.

Once you give them an activity, you put them in context. Are they washing the dishes by hand? Is a dishwasher doing most of the work? How many other times has this person pasted art on public monuments? In the few words which answer these questions, you add a time and a place to the character’s psyche. The more they become believably native to some place and time, the more likely it is that they truthfully portray an actual human.

Perspective has consistent bias

Perspective is the frame of the story; it is the deciding line between what is included and what is excluded.  Short stories resonate with peculiar integrity when they are told from the viewpoint of a single narrator. None of those omniscient intrusions from the author to invoke a muse or explain the meaning of the parable. Anytime in a real conversation when a person attempts an all-seeing, all-knowing statement, we usually treat as their perspective and consider it from our own perspective.

The implication is that short story perspective is biased. The viewpoint doesn’t move from character to character but stays faithful to the perception, assumptions and empathies of one person. The character gives us a taste of his own experience without pretending to have the omniscience of God. At its most meaningful moments, the character’s perspective will not be universally meaningful. Instead, it’s tremendously meaningful to a certain person, his surroundings and his people. Biased perspective allows local flavor to emerge at its strongest.

These three boundary lines push me to find inspiration in the local culture of my hometown and of my townspeople.  This directly assists a valid danger I encounter in trying to live an interest-based life. Sometimes, new interests make us feel naïve because our curiosity is directed right at what we don’t know. And in a culture which prizes experts, it’s embarrassing when you only have half the puzzle; you’d really like to have more. The short story code helps me beyond the fear of not knowing because it redirects me from a vague, bleak unknown. I have intimate knowledge of my home. I and only I may claim mastery of my experiences. The question of expertise dismissed, I am free to nurture my interest without the fear of speaking ignorantly.

And as a beautiful result, this artistic freedom encourages me to go deeper into my community. It leads me into nursing homes, opens my eyes to the homeless and less fortunate and keeps me loyal to even the most difficult family relationships.