Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Woman at the Washington Zoo” is one of many poems by Jarrell that portray depersonalization and loss of identity. For example, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” (1945) is probably Jarrell’s best-known poem and his most emphatic depiction of the impersonal government at war. In only five lines the speaker describes his abrupt transition from a child protected by a loving mother to a mere cog in the machinery of destruction. When the speaker is himself destroyed, his bloody remains are simply washed with a hose from his station in the airplane.

Several other poems focus more specifically on the plight of isolated women. Jarrell identifies the woman at the zoo as a distant relative of other women he has described in such poems as “The End of the Rainbow,” “Cinderella,” and “Seele im Raum.” While most of those poems offer third-person depictions of alienation, “The Woman at the Washington Zoo” allows the speaker to voice her own despair. In doing so the woman may seem like a female counterpart of the main character in T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915). Unlike Prufrock, however, the woman moves beyond passive self-pity. The final sections of the poem focus not on isolation but on the possibility of transformation. If loss of identity is a persistent problem in Jarrell’s poems, some dramatic transformation is the elusive solution. Jarrell was fascinated by the magical shifts and mutations in...

(The entire section is 445 words.)