Explain the poem "The Zoo- keeper's Wife" By Sylvia Plath

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Kristen Lentz | Middle School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The poem "The Zoo-Keeper's Wife" by Silvia Plath is told in the voice of the wife of the zoo-keeper.  In the first two stanzas, she uses an animal metaphor, comparing herself to an eel, which goes with the zoo theme, to express how she feels about herself.  The eel is a powerful and dangerous animal, capable of devouring things whole.  Plath uses the eel metaphor to create the disturbed voice of the zoo-keeper's wife who no longer fancies herself innocently in love.  She confesses that her "marrowy sweetheart" is "face to the wall;" he cannot see or understand her difficulties, but chooses to remain oblivious. 

In the third, fourth, and fifth stanzas, the narrator describes the excitement and wonder of her courtship with the zoo-keeper, before they were married.  He showed her amazing and wonderous sights in the zoo, such as the "bear-furred, bird-eating spider / Clambering round its glass box like an eight-fingered hand" and the rhinoceras with a mouth as "big as a hospital sink," and their "courtship lit the tindery cages."  Their romance felt as exotic and amazing as the many wonderful animal exhibits that Plath lists.

Upon reflection, however, the narrator's natural elation she felt in courtship has dwindled and died; now married, the mystery and appeal of her zoo-keeper husband has disappeared.  She ends the poem with an allusion of counting sheep, but in her world of zoo animals, she counts "apes owls bears sheep / Over their iron stile." For all her counting, she still cannot sleep as the realization of her loveless marriage looms over her.

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