(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1057 words.)