“In the Zoo” is written in the first person, and most of it is a recollection. The narrator writes of her past, adding hindsight and moral judgment to her story. In this respect, and in the detail of the girls’ being orphans dominated by a horrible guardian, the story is reminiscent of the works of Charles Dickens. The story’s championing of emotional and creative expression and denunciation of emotional repression and hypocrisy is also Dickensian. At the time the story was first published, such direct and explicit moralizing had long been out of literary fashion.
In the story, animals and people all serve as moral emblems. In the first paragraph of the story, a polar bear is judged, when an old farmer calls him a “back number.” At the end of the story, the narrator gains bitter amusement by observing a priest as her guardian would have considered him: likely someone pretending to be a priest, up to some evil sexual design on her person. The narrator judges herself as a child, calling herself and her sister “given to tears,” “Dickensian grotesqueries,” and “worms.” One may regard the story’s somewhat anachronistic style, and its ever-present moral judgment, as having two messages: First, that Mrs. Placer refuses to die in the mental life of her foster child, and second, that the narrator wishes to point out that there are still many people lost in the hinterlands—moral, emotional, and geographical.