Madame Zilensky And The King Of Finland by Carson McCullers, 1941
The magic trick:
Flipping the script with the last paragraph
The entire story is driven by Madame Zilensky’s mysterious past. What has she done? Who has she known? Does she tell the truth? Is she a pathological liar? Interestingly, the reader’s quest to answer these questions is pursued only via the perspective of Mr. Brook.
Now, we should’ve been onto the scent early on that perhaps he was not the most reliable of delineators. After all, McCullers gives him a very odd descriptive paragraph on the story’s first page. Mr. Brook, it is said, “had a few eccentricities himself” and “rather relished the ridiculous.” That should have given us pause, but instead – if you’re like me at least – we read on trusting that Brook will sort out the truth for us.
Then we get to last paragraph and we realize that perhaps we’ve been suckered. Mr. Brook looks out the window and notes a dog walking backward. Maybe, it turns out, Mr. Brook is the crazy one. Maybe he’s the only unreliable part of the whole story. Or maybe, the entire story is unreliable. Which ever way it goes, the last paragraph turns everything on its head. And that’s quite at trick on McCullers’s part.
An hour later, Mr. Brook sat looking out of the window of his office. The trees along the quiet Westbridge street were almost bare, and the gray buildings of the college had a calm, sad look. As he idly took in the familiar scene, he noticed the Drakes’ old Airedale waddling along down the street. It was a thing he had watched a hundred times before, so what was it that struck him as strange? Then he realized with a kind of cold surprise that the old dog was running along backward. Mr. Brook watched the Airedale until he was out of sight, then resumed his work on the canons which had been turned in by the class in counterpoint.