Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland

by Carson McCullers

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1057

Mr. Brook, the head of the music department at Ryder College in upstate New York, has hired a woman who will be, he is sure, a very valuable acquisition for his department: Madame Zilensky, whose European credentials are most impressive. Not only does she have a solid reputation as a composer of symphonies but also she is well-known as a fine music teacher. As her immediate superior, Mr. Brook kindly takes it on himself to find for her a house near the college—and, by chance, next door to his apartment.

When he meets her for the first time, he sees a tall, tired woman, shabbily dressed, who is accompanied by her three young sons (Boris, Sammy, and Sigmund) and a Finnish servant. From the beginning, once she starts her teaching tasks, Mr. Brook is uneasy about Madame Zilensky and her children. The boys speak a polyglot language (made up of fragments of Russian, French, German, and other languages), and they will not walk on rugs, simply refusing to go inside rooms that are fully carpeted.

More particularly, weeks after the Zilensky family has supposedly moved in, there is no evidence that the house—whose front door is always open—is inhabited. In fact, Mr. Brook thinks that it looks much like a house that has been abandoned for years.

With regard to Madame Zilensky’s professional work, Mr. Brook is very satisfied. She teaches with unbounded energy and verve, giving over considerable time to her students. Somehow she has acquired four pianos for her college studio and has made great strides in teaching piano technique. At night, every night (and, it seems, at any hour of the night), Mr. Brook sees the light on in her home studio. She is diligently composing her twelfth symphony. It occurs to him that she does not seem to sleep.

Carson McCullers is careful in “Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland” to make the reader aware of some very real differences between Mr. Brook and his new colleague. He is self-assured, carrying out both his administrative and his teaching tasks in a competent and quiet manner, though he detests the bureaucracy of college life. There is no genuine excitement in Mr. Brook’s life; it is an existence that is highly organized, one in which routine is paramount. His music, his college duties, and an occasional summer trip are his whole life. (One summer, years earlier, quite uncharacteristically, he went off to Peru for a vacation by himself, although the entire department had made plans to band together in Salzburg for the summer.) His one concession to eccentricity is that he is tolerant of the offbeat behavior of others. Indeed, in those situations in which he is confronted with absurdity, he is secretly titillated. On balance, however, Mr. Brook is order and restraint personified. McCullers describes him in a single phrase: “a somewhat pastel person.” In a painter’s terms, Mr. Brook is a man of soft hues.

Having been careful to describe Mr. Brook as a man of system and propriety, McCullers, on the other hand, depicts Madame Zilensky as a woman who is driven by her work, a woman whose life is in a sense volatile and chaotic. What she shares with Mr. Brook, however, is solitude. He is at his mellowest when he is alone in his study at home by the fire, sipping brandy and reading poetry. He has no family, no female companion, no close friends. She has her sons—and her work. Apparently there is nothing more in life for her. The crisis in this tale arises over Mr. Brook’s painfully profound discovery of how Madame Zilensky compensates for such a one-dimensional life.

The crisis is initiated several months into her tenure at the college. When Mr. Brook and she converse from time to time, she relates events and episodes in such a way that he finds himself puzzled at first, and then uneasy. What is unsettling about her conversation is that he has difficulty understanding what she is relating to him. For example, she tells him of having taken Sammy to the barbershop the afternoon before, a mundane event, surely, yet her narrative makes the trip an afternoon’s adventure in Baghdad or some other exotic location. At first he thinks that the confusion is on his part: that she has, in fact, been retelling an episode that took place in Europe some years ago. That is not true, he soon discovers; she has indeed been detailing the circumstances of Sammy’s haircut.

Mystified by this, Mr. Brook begins to recall the various stories she has told him recently, and he becomes more mystified. Late one night after his brandy, in a moment of Joycean epiphany, he comes to a full understanding, he thinks, of what she has been doing: Madame Zilensky is a compulsive liar. This revelation is prompted by his recollection of a preposterous story she had told him the day before, about once having seen the king of Finland going by her in a sled. Finland, he recalls, is a democracy; it does not have a king. His immediate reaction is one of irritation and exasperation. Calming down, however, he begins in a scholarly way to analyze her behavior. Her lies have no guile in them, he thinks; she does not intend to deceive; and there is no advantage to her in advancing such foolish stories. What is most troubling is, why does she do this?

Two hours later he knows why. His estimate of the whole situation is a simple and plausible one. Her life is given over to work—unendingly. There is no time for anything else: “Through the lies, she lived vicariously. The lies doubled the little of her existence that was left over from work and augmented the little rag end of her personal life.”

Early the next morning, he confronts her with the facts of her habitual mendacity. She steadfastly stands by her story: She saw the king herself. She insists on the truthfulness of her eyewitness account; he persists in calling it an absolute lie. When he sees a peculiar pain on her face, he thinks of himself as a murderer, that he is killing part of her. Mr. Brook relents and chats amiably with her about the nonexistent king of Finland.

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