The Decapitated Chicken by Horacio Quiroga, 1909
The magic trick:
Confusing the reader’s sympathies with ever-evolving and competing emotional manipulations
This is one of those stories that you won’t soon forget. The plight of the family is troubling at story’s start, but, buckle up, it only gets worse as we go.
I’m not sure I can recall a story that so blatantly – and effectively – toys with the reader’s sympathies. We feel sorry for the parents. Then we hate the parents. Then we feel sorry for the mother again. Then we are happy for the parents, but then we’re annoyed by the spoiled daughter. Then we reprimand the parents for spoiling their daughter. But then we reconsider and give them some slack, considering everything else they’ve dealt with. Of course we feel infinite sympathy for the sons. And then…
And that’s quite a trick on Quiroga’s part.
“It seems to me,” Mazzini, who had just come in and was washing his hands, said to Berta, “that you could keep the boys cleaner.”
As if she hadn’t heard him, Berta continued reading.
“It’s the first time,” she replied after a pause, “I’ve seen you concerned about the condition of your sons.”
Mazzini turned his head toward her with a forced smile.
“Our sons, I think.”
“All right, our sons. Is that the way you like it?” She raised her eyes.
This time Mazzini expressed himself clearly.
“Surely you’re not going to say I’m to blame, are you?”
“Oh, no!” Berta smiled to herself, very pale. “But neither am I, I imagine! That’s all I needed…,” she murmured.
“What? What’s all you needed?”
“Well, if anyone’s to blame, it isn’t me, just remember that! That’s what I meant.”
Her husband looked at her for a moment with a brutal desire to wound her.
“Let’s drop it!” he said finally, drying his hands.
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