Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised 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.