In the Zoo Summary
by Jean Stafford

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(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 exuberant, affectionate dog until Mrs. Placer decided to curb his freedom. She took him away from the girls, renamed him Caesar, abused and mistreated him, and turned him into a monster. When Mr. Murphy heard what had happened, he became furious. With one of his monkeys on his shoulder, he headed for the boardinghouse. As soon as Mrs. Placer saw him, she let Caesar out, and the dog attacked Mr. Murphy and killed his monkey. The next day, Caesar died a horrible death; Mr. Murphy had poisoned him.

As soon as they were old enough, the sisters left Adams. They never went back. However, the author utilizes the frame to reveal a tragic truth: that they never recovered from what had been done to them in childhood. Given their history, their comments about the zoo animals are not as lighthearted as they at first appear to be; in fact, they show how deeply the sisters dislike the whole human race. At the train, both of them express sentiments that are worthy of Mrs. Placer. Daisy points out that someone else has snatched a redcap; the narrator suspects the porter of being a thief. Once the train begins to move, Daisy begins a letter to her sister detailing her suspicions of a priest and her certainty that the passing fields contain marijuana instead of alfalfa.

“In the Zoo” differs from many of Stafford’s other stories in that, though it moves toward a revelation, the protagonists do not arrive at enlightenment; instead, only the author and the reader comprehend what has happened. As the title suggests, though the sisters think they are observers at the zoo, in fact they are as trapped as the animals in the zoo; their cages are just less visible.


(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...

(The entire section is 2,106 words.)