The Possibility of Evil Questions and Answers

Shirley Jackson

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting The Possibility of Evil questions.

Who Sent the Poison Pen Letter to Miss Strangeworth and Destroyed Her Rose Bushes?

Miss Adela Strangeworth writes what used to be commonly called "poison pen letters." The term is not heard often nowadays, but there is a great deal of poison pen e-mail on the Internet. Wikipedia defines a poison pen letter as follows:

poison pen letter is a letter or note containing unpleasant, abusive or malicious statements or accusations about the recipient or a third party. It is usually sent anonymously. Poison pen letters are usually composed and sent to upset the recipient. They differ from blackmail, which is intended to obtain something, in that they are purely malicious.

The author Shirley Jackson specifies that Miss Strangeworth uses colored paper and colored envelopes which are so common that most people in her town buy and use them.

Miss Strangeworth used a pad of various-coloured paper, layered in pink and green and blue and yellow; everyone in town bought it and used it for odd, informal notes and shopping lists....

This bit of exposition has a dual purpose. It makes it impossible for any recipient to trace a letter back to Miss Strangeworth, since the letter could have been written and sent by anybody in town. Furthermore, it will make it impossible for Miss Strangeworth to identify the person who sent her the letter on green paper in a green envelope at the very end of the story. Hence, she will never know who destroyed her beautiful roses.

But the reader ought to be able to tell who cut up all her rose bushes and sent her the letter reading: 

Look out at what used to be your roses.

Early in the story Miss Strangeworth stops to chat with Helen Crane, who has a baby only six months old. Helen confesses that she is worried about the baby girl because she doesn't seem to be developing as fast as she should.

"She just seems--slow," Helen Crane said.

Later Miss Strangeworth writes a poison-pen note on a pink sheet which reads simply:

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

Eventually the reader is told that she addresses an envelope to Don Crane, who is Helen's husband and father of the baby girl. Earlier, when Miss Strangeworth had stopped "to smile down on the Crane baby,"

Don and Helen Crane were really the two most infatuated young parents she had ever known, she thought indulgently, looking at the delicately embroidered baby cap and the lace-edged carriage cover.

Miss Strangeworth uses "a pink envelope to match the pink paper." Then when she accidentally drops one of her three poison-pen letters at the post office, the Harris boy, who has been the victim of one of her anonymous letters, picks it up and says to his girlfriend:

"It's for Don Crane....this letter....Might as well take it on over."

So Don Crane receives the pink letter, and the Harris boy tells him Miss Strangeworth accidentally dropped it while depositing letters into the slot at the post office. Don Crane is obviously the only person in town who knows that Miss Strangeworth has the hobby of sending out poison-pen letters to make other people frightened, suspicious, apprehensive, jealous, angry, or otherwise upset. Therefore, Don Crane must be the man who destroyed all of her treasured rose bushes and sent her the letter reading:

Look out at what used to be your roses.

 

What was Miss Strangeworth's motivation to write the poison pen letters?

Miss Strangeworth has been sending her poison-pen letters to people in her town for a long time. Does she just enjoy making trouble? Or is there a reason why she targets certain people? She is called Miss Strangeworth because she is obviously an old maid. This might seem to put her in the same category as Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations and Emily Grierson in William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily," both of whom are consumed with hatred. Miss Strangeworth may hate people who are happy because she has never been loved. 

When she gets home she writes three of her letters. One of them goes to Don Crane. Miss Strangeworth had just been talking to his wife Helen, and she knows they are both worried about their six-month-old baby daughter's development. She may be motivated by jealousy of this young couple who love each other and now have a baby to love. So she writes:

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

Her next letter is for Mrs. Harper. She may be jealous of her because she has a husband. She writes:

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?

She obviously would like to poison the long marital relationship between the couple by planting the suggestion that Mr. Harper is having an affair with another woman.

Miss Strangeworth's third and final letter is "to old Mrs. Foster, who was having an operation next month." She writes:

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?

It could be surmised that Miss Strangeworth is jealous of Mrs. Burns because she has a lot of money and also because she has a nephew who loves her and looks after her.

Miss Strangeworth has created trouble for a couple of teenagers, Linda Stewart and Dave Harris. These two are going steady and are in love. This could easily make Miss Strangeworth sufficiently jealous to do what she did. She sent Linda's parents a letter suggesting that their fifteen-year-old daughter was having illicit relations with the Harris boy. She overhears the two youngsters talking when she gets to the post office to mail her three letters.

"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."
"But why won't your father let me come around anymore? What on earth did I do?"
"I can't tell you. I just wouldn't tell you for anything. You've got to have a dirty, dirty mind for things like that." ....

It is a touch of irony that Dave Harris, who has no idea that Miss Strangeworth is the cause of his troubles with Linda's parents, tries to help the old lady out by hand-delivering her poison-pen letter to Don Crane and telling Don that Miss Strangeworth accidentally dropped it at the post office.