Style and Technique

“In the Zoo” is written in the first person, and most of it is a recollection. The narrator writes of her past, adding hindsight and moral judgment to her story. In this respect, and in the detail of the girls’ being orphans dominated by a horrible guardian, the story is reminiscent of the works of Charles Dickens. The story’s championing of emotional and creative expression and denunciation of emotional repression and hypocrisy is also Dickensian. At the time the story was first published, such direct and explicit moralizing had long been out of literary fashion.

In the story, animals and people all serve as moral emblems. In the first paragraph of the story, a polar bear is judged, when an old farmer calls him a “back number.” At the end of the story, the narrator gains bitter amusement by observing a priest as her guardian would have considered him: likely someone pretending to be a priest, up to some evil sexual design on her person. The narrator judges herself as a child, calling herself and her sister “given to tears,” “Dickensian grotesqueries,” and “worms.” One may regard the story’s somewhat anachronistic style, and its ever-present moral judgment, as having two messages: First, that Mrs. Placer refuses to die in the mental life of her foster child, and second, that the narrator wishes to point out that there are still many people lost in the hinterlands—moral, emotional, and geographical.

Historical Context

America in the 1950s
The cultural environment in the United States during the 1950s, the era of the ‘‘baby-boomers,’’ or...

(The entire section is 533 words.)

Literary Style

With its attention to detail, its logical narrative, and its realistic psychological character portraits, ‘‘In the...

(The entire section is 365 words.)

Compare and Contrast

1930s: The Great Depression is in full swing and millions of Americans struggle to keep their finances under control.


(The entire section is 285 words.)

Topics for Further Study

Research the economic and social conditions of the Great Depression, focusing on its effects on small towns in the American West. What...

(The entire section is 480 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

Generally recognized as Stafford’s finest novel, The Mountain Lion (1947) is the story of a lonely girl who writes fiction and...

(The entire section is 204 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

Hulbert, Anne, The Interior Castle: The Art and Life of Jean Stafford, Alfred A. Knopf, 1992, p. 302.

Mann, Jeanette W., ‘‘Jean Stafford,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 173, American Novelists Since World War II, Fifth Series, edited by James R. Giles and Wanda H. Giles, Gale Research, 1996, pp. 260–70.

Oates, Joyce Carol, ‘‘The Interior Castle: The Art of Jean Stafford’s Short Fiction,’’ in Jean Stafford: A Study of the Short Fiction, by Mary Ann Wilson, Twayne Publishers, 1996, pp. 136–39; originally published in Shenandoah, Vol. 30, Winter 1979, pp. 61–64.

Ryan, Maureen, Innocence and Estrangement in the Fiction...

(The entire section is 312 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Austenfeid, Thomas Carl. American Women Writers and the Nazis: Ethics and Politics in Boyle, Porter, Stafford, and Hellman. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001.

Goodman, Charlotte Margolis. Jean Stafford: The Savage Heart. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.

Hulbert, Ann. The Interior Castle: The Art and Life of Jean Stafford. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Roberts, David. Jean Stafford: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1988.

Rosowski, Susan J. Birthing a Nation: Gender, Creativity, and the West in American...

(The entire section is 120 words.)