(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“In the Zoo” is a story told within a frame. It begins and ends in the Denver, Colorado, zoo, where two middle-aged women are sitting on a bench, eating popcorn and watching the animals. Neither of them lives in Denver; Daisy has just come there to put her sister, the narrator, on a train heading east. After her departure, Daisy will return to her own home west of Denver. Neither sister has any intention of visiting Adams, Colorado, the nearby town where they spent their childhood. However, when Daisy observes that the blind polar bear reminds her of Mr. Murphy, the sisters are thrust back into a time and place they can never forget.

After the deaths of their parents, the two little girls were sent to Adams, where arrangements had been made for a Mrs. Placer to keep them in her boardinghouse. Mrs. Placer believed that everyone and everything in the world was a fraud. Aided by her embittered lodgers, she pursued her life’s work, decoding conversations to reveal hidden insults and to ferret out evil intentions. She taught the girls to distrust everyone—their classmates, their teachers, even the tradesmen whom they encountered.

Their only friend was Mr. Murphy, an alcoholic with a collection of pets, including two capuchin monkeys. Mr. Murphy welcomed the girls’ visits to his menagerie. One day, he gave them a puppy, which they named Laddy, and when they presented him as a future watchdog, Mrs. Placer let them keep him. Laddy was an...

(The entire section is 544 words.)

In the Zoo Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Two sisters, now grown and living apart, visit each other every other year at a convenient railroad hub, Denver. There they go to the zoo and reminisce about their childhood, especially about Mr. Murphy, who kept a small collection of animals in his backyard, and their foster mother, the awful Mrs. Placer.

Mrs. Placer ran a boardinghouse, and she liked her tenants and the girls to call her Gran. She and the boarders had a favorite activity: nursing resentments. At the end of each day, sitting down to their “ugly-colored” meal, Mrs. Placer and the guests reviewed the evils, plots, thoughtlessness, sins, and slurs that they had the misfortune of experiencing that day. The girls, cowed, tried silence as a defense, but Mrs. Placer invariably managed to uncover some real or imagined slight that the two timid, unpopular orphans suffered. She would, for example, announce to her audience that the awful teacher said that the narrator could not carry a tune in a basket.

Mrs. Placer’s poisonous litany continued through years of boardinghouse conversations. It was the teacher’s fault that the girls could not learn fractions. A girl with braces who actually played with the girls did so only in order to lord it over them because they did not have the money to have their own teeth straightened. Steeped in this atmosphere, the narrator recalls, she and her sister grew up like worms. Despite their indoctrination, one thin filament of an impulse toward happiness survived, finding its outlet in Mr. Murphy’s menagerie. An alcoholic who drank all day and played solitaire, Murphy was friendly and completely undemanding with the girls. He kept a small fox, a deodorized skunk, a parrot, a coyote, and two capuchin monkeys, which the girls spent hours watching. Mrs. Placer knew about the visits but allowed them, taking pleasure in excoriating Murphy.

Murphy gave the girls a present of a puppy. Moreover, he told them how to convince Mrs. Placer to let them keep it by pointing out that the dog would make a good watchdog. Mrs. Placer’s morbid and paranoid imagination worked as Murphy anticipated. She raised a dozen...

(The entire section is 875 words.)

In the Zoo Extended Summary

Sitting in a zoo in Denver, Colorado, two sisters eat popcorn while watching a blind polar bear, a family of grizzlies, a black bear, and a group of monkeys. The narrator’s sister Daisy is accustomed to seeing off her sister in Denver every other year, while the narrator is on her way back east. Daisy comments that the polar bear reminds her of someone named Mr. Murphy. This comment sets the sisters to thinking about their childhood in Adams, a small town fifty miles north of Denver. Orphaned at eight and ten, the sisters grew up there with a foster mother unrelated to them called Mrs. Placer, or Gran, who ran a boarding house in which, like her, all of the boarders complained and gossiped about the rest of the town.

Mr. Murphy was a gentle, jobless Irishman who spent his time drinking, playing cards, and enjoying all of his animals, which ranged from a parrot that spoke Parisian French to two small, ‘‘sad and sweet’’ capuchin monkeys. Before they reached adolescence, the girls loved him and his monkeys, thinking of them like ‘‘husbands and fathers and brothers.’’ One day Mr. Murphy gives them a present of a half-collie, half-Labrador retriever puppy. At first, Gran would not hear of keeping him, imagining all of the horrible things he would do, but she agrees after she hears that the puppy would make a good watchdog.

The puppy, whom the girls named Laddy, made a great mess at first but learned quickly and soon Laddy became a charming dog, escorting them to school and enjoying himself with hunting weekends in the mountains. Gran became angry after one of these long weekends, however, and decided to train Laddy herself, renaming him ‘‘Caesar’’ and taking him away from the girls. By disciplining him with a chain and occasional cuffs on the ears, Gran changed Caesar into a powerful attack dog. The police demanded that he be muzzled after he began biting and harassing strangers at the house, but Gran largely...

(The entire section is 687 words.)