Jean Stafford was a post–World War II American author whose fiction remained within the realist and symbolist traditions dating back to the nineteenth century. Influential in the high literary society of her time, Stafford was married to the poet Robert Lowell for six years and then married to two other men. She never forgot her rural Western roots and diffi- cult childhood, however, and themes from her younger life continually reappear in her writings. One such story, entitled ‘‘In the Zoo,’’ is a psychological portrait of two orphans remembering their traumatic childhood in a small Rocky Mountain town.
Stafford published ‘‘In the Zoo’’ in 1953, as the most active years of her career as a fiction writer were drawing to a close. Two years later, the story won the O. Henry Memorial Award for best short story of the year. One reason for the story’s success is its rich characterization, through which Stafford creates memorable characters such as Gran, the manipulative and cruel foster mother of the girls, and Mr. Murphy, a jobless, alcoholic Irishman who treats the sisters with kindness and love. The story is also compelling because of its sophisticated use of symbolism—particularly the animals that represent various people and themes from the sisters’ childhood—and its striking, moving climax, which occurs when Gran turns the sisters’ puppy into an attack dog and lets it kill Mr. Murphy’s monkey. Through these techniques, Stafford comments on themes of psychological trauma, confinement, and the nature of love and companionship. ‘‘In the Zoo’’ is now available in The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford (1969), which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1970.