In the Zoo Themes

Themes and Meanings (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

There are three zoos in Jean Stafford’s “In the Zoo”: the zoo in Denver in which the story is framed, the zoo of the boardinghouse’s assortment of misfits, and Mr. Murphy’s menagerie. The narrator anthropomorphizes freely, giving animals human characteristics. The human qualities that the animals take on always have emotional and moral dimensions. The narrator projects a human character on animals; they become symbolic of various states of being. For example, there are, at the beginning of the story, a pathetic bear, a fine bourgeois grizzly, and some eternally hip and satiric monkeys. Laddy, the amiable guy-dog, becomes Caesar, the mean watchdog. Reading the narrator’s descriptions of animals, one may infer that she experiences, vicariously through them, various states of mind and heart that she is too timid to attempt in life.

There is also a moral dimension to the characterization of the humans and the animals of the story. Mrs. Placer’s moral failings are the centerpiece of the story. She is what most influences the moral condition of the two sisters, their dog, and the boarders. Tellingly, no human in the story is described as having animal characteristics, possibly because to do so would denigrate animals. The narrator loves animals, it seems clear, precisely because they are not human.

In the Zoo Themes

Childhood Trauma
Daisy and the narrator’s psychological trauma, stemming from their childhood with Gran, is not confined to their flashback, and it does not end with Gran’s death. In fact, it continues to trouble them into their middle age, as is clear from the immediate urgency of the sisters’ memories when Daisy mentions Mr. Murphy, from the intensity of their emotional farewell, and from the earnest letter that the narrator writes to her sister from the train. The sisters are no longer traumatized and defenseless orphans, but they are still attempting to deal with the ‘‘terror and humiliation’’ of their childhood.

The sisters’ close relationship with each other and their abilities to build new lives for themselves suggest some hope in their attempt to move beyond their earlier psychological trauma. However, there are a number of clues at the end of the story to suggest that the narrator and her sister have not emerged from their difficult childhood at all. The sisters’ somewhat snide comments about the porter at the end of the story, which sound very much like the reaction that Gran and her boarders might have to the situation, support this reading of the story, as does the narrator’s final laugh, if one takes its ‘‘unholy giggle’’ to be similar to Gran’s.

Confinement and Control
Confinement and control, including power over those who have been excluded and shunned from society, are common themes in Stafford’s short story. Mr. Murphy, his animals, the animals in the zoo, Daisy, and the narrator have all been terrorized with harassment and scorn and confined in various kinds of cages. Their personality types are part of the reason for their separation from those around them. Mr. Murphy is a good example of an outcast with little desire to integrate himself into normal society. However, Stafford emphasizes that it is mainly due to society’s manipulative cruelty that...

(The entire section is 797 words.)