Use of Irony in Shirley Jackson's Short Story ‘The Possibility of Evil’

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In his novel ‘Shibumi’, author Rodney William Whitaker writes, “Irony is fate's most common figure of speech”. Irony is present in almost every situation imaginable—from the small talk made while waiting in line to the foundation of some of the most well-known, acclaimed pieces of literature in history. Simply put, irony is a contrast between expectation and reality— when what is expected to happen does not. Author Shirley Jackson utilizes this concept multiple times in ‘The Possibility of Evil’, a story in which she narrates the daily life of Miss Strangeworth, a seemingly pleasant and well-liked citizen of a small town. Despite her apparently cheery demeanor, this not-so-pleasant soul makes a habit of writing harsh—but anonymous—poison-pen letters to fellow neighbors in hopes of diminishing any possibility of wickedness that may be infecting her precious town. One day, though, her habits are discovered and a recipient of one of her unkind letters decides to take revenge in the form of the destruction of her most treasured possession—her roses. Jackson does an excellent job of using irony in Miss Strangeworth's story of sorrow to reveal the traits of her characters, propel the plot, and establish a basis for the actions taken by the characters in her story.

One instance of irony presented in the story can be identified when Jackson details Miss Strangeworth's behaviors and feelings concerning her roses. Miss Strangeworth, despite having a plethora of roses at her disposal in her front yard, rarely ever picks them (26). On the rare occasion she does remove them from their bed, their use is solely in her house and her house alone (26). She even went out of her way to “[send] over a great big basket of gladioli” to the church—instead of her own roses—when flowers were being collected (26). The irony in Miss Strangeworth's management of her roses aids in both propelling the plot and providing a basis for the actions of the character(s) later on in the story. In this example, Miss Strangeworth's roses are later destroyed by an anonymous neighbor in an act of revenge rooted in bitterness concerning the inconsiderate letters she had written (38). Because she took such great pride in her roses—so much that she would never dare think of uprooting them for someone else—the anonymous character was presented with the perfect opportunity to give Miss Srangeworth a taste of her own medicine. They were able to ruin Miss Strangeworth's pride and joy in return for the harsh words and feelings she had thrust upon them.

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Additionally, the polite manner in which Miss Strangeworth addresses her neighbors in contrast with the blatant, discourteous words she uses when writing her letters is a clear example of situational irony used in the story with the purpose of revealing Miss Strangeworth's character. In one of her various conversations with her neighbors, Miss Strangeworth kindly reassures Helen Crane, a new mother, of her baby's regular development (29). In response to Mrs. Crane's remark regarding her concern for her baby's lack of movement, Miss Strangeworth comments, “Nonsense. All babies are different. Some of them develop much more quickly than others...”, and later continues to respectfully tease Mrs. Crane about her worries (29). Despite the polite dialogue Miss Strangeworth engages in on a regular basis, her personality is truly revealed when she anonymously addresses her infamous messages to those members of her community who she suspects may be up to ‘evil’. To Helen Crane in particular, she writes, “Didn't you ever see an idiot child before? Some people just shouldn't have children, should they?” (31). The blunt language used in this and other letters Miss Strangeworth writes is outrageously harsh in comparison to the cordial, sympathetic speech she exhibits on the streets of her town. This purpose of this instance of irony is most clearly to reveal Miss Strangeworth's character as someone who may seem pleasant and heartfelt on the outside, but for who—on the inside—a different story is told. From this example, Miss Strangeworth can be described as harsh, inconsiderate, and brutal with her words despite being one of the most well-respected citizens of her town.

Finally, the scene in which Miss Strangeworth overlooks her dropped letter is a prominent form of dramatic irony presented in the story, and it helps to drive the plot. In the process of placing her poison-pen letters in the mailbox at the post office, one letter catches on the edge of the slot and falls to the ground (36). Miss Strangeworth does not notice it, but “the Harris boy”—as he is referred to—does. After a fruitless attempt to call Miss Strangeworth back to the post office, he decides to personally deliver the forgotten letter for her (37). The fact that Miss Strangeworth is not aware of the situation introduces suspense into the story and foreshadows the action(s) soon to follow—the consequences for Miss Strangeworth's insensitive notes. As mentioned previously, Miss Strangeworth's roses are anonymously destroyed the following morning, and the reader can conclude that they were destroyed by the recipient of the abandoned letter.

Irony can be identified in almost any situation, and is evidently useful in written works such as ‘The Possibility of Evil’ as a basis for a majority of the events that take place in the story. Through Miss Strangeworth's unfortunate turn of events, we can clearly determine instances where a contrast between what we believe to be true and what is actually true is helpful in driving the plot and the actions of the characters, as well as in revealing the true, defining character traits of each figure in the story. As Whitaker's quote suggests, irony penetrates many of the occurrences experienced daily—whether they be fictitious or found in reality—and fate can be found to manipulate the outcome of various situations using this ever-prevalent figure of speech in everyday life.

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Use of Irony in Shirley Jackson’s Short Story ‘The Possibility of Evil’. (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/use-of-irony-in-shirley-jacksons-short-story-the-possibility-of-evil/
“Use of Irony in Shirley Jackson’s Short Story ‘The Possibility of Evil’.” Edubirdie, 15 Dec. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/use-of-irony-in-shirley-jacksons-short-story-the-possibility-of-evil/
Use of Irony in Shirley Jackson’s Short Story ‘The Possibility of Evil’. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/use-of-irony-in-shirley-jacksons-short-story-the-possibility-of-evil/> [Accessed 30 May 2024].
Use of Irony in Shirley Jackson’s Short Story ‘The Possibility of Evil’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 15 [cited 2024 May 30]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/use-of-irony-in-shirley-jacksons-short-story-the-possibility-of-evil/
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