“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 fairy tales, and he translated or imitated several poems by Rainer Maria Rilke that focused on this motif.
At first the woman’s appeal to the vulture appears bizarre, but on closer examination its symbolism becomes apt. In consuming carcasses of dead animals, a scavenger clears away the old. By performing this essential function, the vulture enables the cycle of life to continue. Since the speaker sees her own condition as deathlike and desires an infusion of new life, her invocation to the vulture is fitting. Identifying herself with the leftover white rat, the woman takes on the pallid hue of illness and lack of vitality. The vulture, in sharp contrast, displays the colors black and red. Its black wings obviously connote death, but the bright red helmet (suggesting animation and sexual energy) may be a harbinger of rebirth. The woman wants her old self to be consumed so that a new self can emerge.
Since Jarrell stops with her plea rather than its consequence, he leaves the poem open-ended. As time proceeds, she may experience nothing more than continued loneliness and aging. Even if the vulture cannot change her, however, the intensity of her plea may suggest sufficient motivation to change herself.