What are Miss Strangeworth's motivations in "The Possibility of Evil" by Shirley Jackson?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Miss Strangeworth is a complex character. She believes it is her civic duty as the town's oldest resident and descendant of the town's founders to act as a sort of guardian of public morality. The truth seems to be that her real motivations are envy and jealousy. It is significant that all the people whose lives she has affected with her anonymous letters were made to feel threatened about their relationship with someone close to them. For example, both Don and Helen Crane are worried about the development of their infant daughter, and Miss Strangeworth intensifies their worries with a number of letters. Her latest one reads:

Didn’t you ever see an idiot child before? Some people just shouldn’t have children, should they?

Miss Strangeworth has never had a baby. She has never been married. She may never have had a boyfriend, or even a date. She is really a pathetic creature, a lonely old woman pretending to be an important member of the community. The recipients of the three letters she writes in this story all have someone they care about. For example, Mrs. Harper, one of Miss Strangeworth's contemporaries, has a husband. The latest poison-pen letter addressed to her reads:

Have you found out yet what they were all laughing about after you left the bridge club on Thursday? Or is the wife really the last one to know?

Old Mrs. Foster has a nephew she cares about, and who presumably cares about her. The letter she receives reads:

You never know about doctors. Remember they’re only human and need money like the rest of us. Suppose the knife slipped accidentally. Would Doctor Burns get his fee and a little extra from that nephew of yours?

The adverse effects of Miss Strangeworth's letters can be seen in other characters who received them in the past. Most notable are young Dave Harris and Linda Stewart, the lovers whose relationship has nearly been destroyed by a letter Miss Strangeworth sent to Linda's parents suggesting that the teenagers were getting inappropriately involved. The kindly little spinster is gratified when she happens to overhear them talking.

“I can’t tell you, Dave,” Linda was saying – so she was talking to the Harris boy, as Miss Strangeworth had supposed – “I just can’t. It’s just nasty.”

In every instance it can be seen that a relationship is imperilled by one of this unhappy woman's poison-pen letters. Dave and Linda might have gotten married. Don and Helen Crane may never dare to have another baby. Old Mrs. Foster may never feel the same about her nephew again. Miss Strangeworth had only taken up the hobby of writing her letters in the past year, and already she can see visible evidence of their effects on townspeople--although she does not understand that they could have any connection with her letters. Or at least she cannot permit herself to understand that her letters are creating chaos in a once-peaceful little town.

Many people seemed disturbed recently, Miss Strangeworth thought.

She has nothing to do with her time. She buys only tiny amounts of groceries each time she visits Mr. Lewis's store, so she has to keep going back nearly every day. Mr. Lewis has been looking worried lately. 

Mr. Lewis would never have imagined for a minute that his grandson might be lifting petty cash from the store register if he had not had one of Miss Strangeworth’s letters.

Evidently, Miss Strangeworth tells herself that her motive for interfering in people's lives is to uphold civic morality, but her real motive appears to be to prevent others from enjoying the human affections she never experienced herself. 

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The Possibility of Evil

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