Themes and Meanings
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, 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...
(The entire section is 1,195 words.)