The Zoo Story is an intensely harrowing expression of estrangement in American society. The lack of communication between Jerry and his landlady’s vicious dog is merely an analogy for the hostility among living beings in a world in which alienation and lack of sympathy are deep-seated psychological conditions. The story of the dog leads to Jerry’s zoo story, but the roundabout, digressionary mode of relation is emblematic of Edward Albee’s style. This drama is one in which a lonely man on the verge of nervous breakdown desperately attempts to find at least one individual who will hear him out and come to an understanding of the existential plight that Jerry sees as a malaise in the world.
Although only in his late thirties, Jerry is in physical decline. His weariness is evidently a result of his sordid personal history: He is a product of a broken home, the orphaned son of a promiscuous, alcoholic mother and a weak father. Deprived of a normal family environment—his adoptive puritanical aunt dies prematurely— Jerry is apparently unable to find solid, loving relationships. His homosexuality separates him from others, and his seedy rooming house reeks of alienation. Its most vivid tenants are symptomatic of the problem that Jerry sees as a pathological contaminant of contemporary life. The mysterious person in the main-floor front room whom nobody has ever seen, the “colored queen” with rotten teeth, plucked eyebrows, and Japanese kimono, the Puerto Rican family forced to live in crowded squalor, and the lady on the third floor who cries softly but determinedly all the time are all caged in their respective cells of solitude, cut off from one another in a hellish half-world.
Further signs of isolation and unhappiness lie in the figure of the fat, ugly, misanthropic, drunken landlady, who makes repulsive sexual advances to Jerry, and in the figure of her monstrous dog. Jerry and the dog are as alienated from each other as the animals in the zoo are from one another and from humans. Jerry’s inability to communicate with the dog has rendered him desperate for one last chance at contact with a living being. Peter, however, with his tweeds, pipe, horn-rimmed glasses, and afternoon book, is unable to offer him that vital breakthrough. Suspicious, bewildered, and afraid, Peter hails from a highly organized and conventional middle-class world and repeatedly fails to apprehend the moral in any of Jerry’s stories. What is more important, he fails to see the desperate humanity and vulnerability of Jerry and so fails to recognize his own human deficiencies. He remains representative of the successful American businessman—the type so securely locked into his bourgeois values and comfortable way of life that he cannot see or respond to the desolation around him. He is a sophisticated version of the impersonality that Jerry sees in other, more primitive settings (the rooming house and zoo), but he is typical of society’s refusal to pay heed to the pains and needs of its outcasts.
The Zoo Story by Edward Albee details what happens when one character enters the life of another character and quickly changes it forever. In the play, Jerry confronts Peter while he sits quietly reading on a bench in Central Park; through a quick series of events, Jerry forces Peter into helping him kill himself. Layered throughout this short one-act play are three overriding themes: absurdity versus reality, alienation and loneliness, and wealth and poverty.
Absurdity and Reality The first theme of The Zoo Story has to do with absurdity and reality. During the beginning of the play,...
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Jerry initiates the conversation with Peter and carefully chooses topics with which Peter will be familiar, such as family and career. However, Jerry soon begins to insert strange comments and questions into what is on the surface a conversation between two strangers trying to get to know each other. This is apparent during the moment when Jerry, assuming that Peter does not like his daughters' cats, asks if Peter's birds are diseased. Peter says that he does not believe so and Jerry replies:
"That's too bad. If they did you could set them loose in the house and the cats could eat them and die, maybe.'' These unreasonable and ridiculous, or absurd, moments in the play begin to shake Peter's sense of reality and place. However, Jerry is quick to counter these moments with genuinely pleasant, benign comments and interesting stories to keep Peter engaged. Throughout the play, as Jerry's stories continue, he is careful to control the conversation and manipulate Peter. By the end of the play, Jerry has managed to alter Peter's perception of reality to such an extent that Peter becomes involved in a physical fight over what he believes to be "his" park bench and in an act of self-defense helps Jerry kill himself. The reality of what has transpired then strikes Peter full force, and he runs off howling "Oh my God!"
Alienation and Loneliness The theme of alienation and loneliness, which in The Zoo Story is presented as being representative of the human condition as a whole, is largely what motivates Jerry to do the things that he does. From the beginning of the play, when Jerry enters Peter's world, it is obvious that Jerry lacks simple social skills. Jerry's first words are not, "Hello, may I sit down," but rather: "I've been to the zoo. I said, I've been to the zoo. MISTER, I'VE BEEN TO THE ZOO!" Through Jerry's stories, Peter learns that Jerry lost his parents at the age of ten and then went to live with his aunt, who died on the afternoon of his high school graduation. Jerry also makes very explicit comments about the boarding house he lives in and the other inhabitants there who act as a sort of family to Jerry, even though he does not really even know them. He even includes them in his prayers at night. Albee establishes Jerry's alienation from the rest of the world rather quickly and then continues to fill in the whole picture of his life for the audience. It is the pain that comes with this loneliness that forces Jerry to kill himself with Peter's help at the end of the play. Jerry finally finds solace after he has been stabbed, and he tells Peter: "I came unto you and you have comforted me. Dear Peter."
Wealth and Poverty The final major theme of The Zoo Story is wealth and poverty, and the illusions that are created between the social and economic classes. This theme is closely related to alienation and loneliness because Albee establishes the societal pressures of class as the cause of Jerry's suffering. The issue of class is brought up early in the play when Jerry is asking Peter about his family and his job, and then asks: "Say, what's the dividing line between upper-middle-middle class and lower-upper-middle class?" Obviously, Jerry belongs to neither of these classes, and by his own admission is simply being condescending. However, the illusions that Jerry has about Peter's life are very close to the truth, whereas to Peter Jerry's life is completely foreign.