Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Two of McCullers’s characteristic themes are to be found in “Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland”: that solitude is inescapable and, more often than not, is the cause of unhappiness; and that a life without illusions (whether one calls them dreams or lies) is unbearable. Both these themes are illustrated in the life of Madame Zilensky. Her capacity for work and her energy for work are admirable traits in very substantive ways, but they are also traits that make for the kind of wretched and lonely life in which she is caught up. As McCullers says in so many ways in her fiction, in, for example, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941), “The Ballad of the Sad Café”—indeed, in almost every story she wrote: Love is the very core of a human’s being; without it, a person is nothing. Without it, one must fall back on one’s illusions, dreams, or (in the case of Madame Zilensky) lies.

In other words, Madame Zilensky’s parochial existence has not allowed any love into her life, beyond that which she feels for her music and her sons. McCullers would argue that that is not enough. Her solitude is of the worst kind. It is the solitude of loneliness. Rather than disintegrating, as some of McCullers’s characters do, Madame Zilensky resorts to a form of childish behavior—lying. She renders her solitude more bearable through the medium of her untruths. From McCullers’s description of her lies, it would seem that for the most part they are unimportant—and they do not advance her or any cause of hers in any way. Perhaps she deems them to have some special significance for her, but for her auditors, such as Mr. Brook, the fabrications are merely outrageous. The absurdity of the continual lying is compounded by the fact that her lies are so transparent—so easily recognized for what they are. In the end, McCullers is making a statement about an obsession of hers. A life of illusions may be unpardonable for some, but for the Madame Zilenskys of the world, a life without those sustaining lies is unbearable. That is why Mr. Brook’s righteousness changes instantaneously to compassion: He has read that message on Madame Zilensky’s fearful face.