What is Miss Strangeworth's motivation in the story "The Possibility of Evil"?
Miss Strangeworth apparently does not understand how much trouble she is causing with her anonymous letters, nor does she seem to be aware of the real reason she is writing them. She tells herself she is doing her civic duty as the oldest person in the community and as the only surviving member of the family that founded the town. It would appear, from what we know of the people to whom she has been sending her letters, that she is motivated by envy, jealousy, and bitterness. She is a lonely old maid, and she feels embittered when she sees anyone who has another person to love. Her letters invariably damage human relationships. Perhaps, like Miss Emily Grierson in William Faulkner's story "A Rose for Emily," Miss Strangeworth has never in her entire life had anyone to love and to love her.
A good example of people victimized by Miss Strangeworth's unconscious jealousy is the high-school kids Linda Stewart and Dave Harris, who are very much in love. Miss Strangeworth has poisoned their innocent romance by writing an anonymous letter to Linda's parents hinting that Dave is carrying the relationship far beyond the usual hugging and kissing of kids their age.
Miss Strangeworth is probably jealous of Martha Harper because she has a husband. The letter to Mrs. Harper plants seeds of suspicion by hinting that everybody knows her husband is having an affair with another women in the town. Mrs. Harper is apparently a prime target. When Miss Strangeworth is writing her letters that day, we learn that she has written poison-pen letters to this woman before.
After thinking for a minute, she decided that she would like to write another letter, perhaps to go to Mrs. Harper, to follow up the ones she had already mailed. She selected a green sheet this time and wrote quickly: 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?
Don and Helen Crane are not only happily married but have a six-months-old daughter they adore. Miss Strangeworth tries to increase their worries about their baby's development by sending a letter reading:
Didn't you ever see an idiot child before? Some people just shouldn't have children, should they?
This is intended to poison the Cranes' marital relations and prevent them from having any more children.
Old Mrs. Foster has a nephew who is probably very important to her because he is apparently her only living relative. Miss Strangeworth sends her an anonymous letter reading:
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?
This will make the old woman mistrustful of both her nephew and her doctor. Mrs. Foster is probably already sufficiently worried about undergoing a major operation at her age and may decide to cancel it.
Mr. Lewis the grocer has a grandson who helps out in the store.
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.
We can feel sorry for Miss Strangeworth, as we do for Faulkner's Emily Grierson and for the lonely Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens' novel Great Expectations. Miss Strangeworth is obviously unaware of the jealousy and bitterness that so many other people in her town cause her just by being happy in having someone to care for. She keeps her feelings hidden from herself until the very end of the story.
She began to cry silently for the wickedness of the world when she read the words: Look out at what used to be your roses.
She is not really crying for the wickedness of the world but crying for all her years of unrequited longing for love. Her roses were a poor substitute for love, but they were the only substitute she had.