Over the years, society has advanced to such an extent that we all live in a multi-cultural environment that seems to have enough space for everyone. However, with the growth, certain values, beliefs, and standards that have evolved with society have led to greater alienation of individuals within the society. The one play-act ‘The Zoo Story’ tackles the problems of alienation, social differences as well as poverty and their effect on individuals. It points out the reactions of society on individuals who are considered misfits and the struggles that they undergo in order to be considered part of the larger fabric within the society.
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Thesis Statement: Although Jerry talks about ‘what happened in the Zoo’ the events that occur at the end of the play were not planned. The action to end his life was not planned but happened as he tried to make Peter understand him.
The story, set in 1950s America is about a lonely man who craves contact with another human being. The protagonist, Jerry walks up to a stranger in Central Park and strikes up a conversation. The stranger’s name is Peter and although he is reluctant to join in the conversation, Jerry uses the mystery of what happened in the Zoo to draw Peter into the conversation. As the conversation goes on, Jerry questions Peter about his personal life, how many children he has, and his line of work. At first, Peter answers out of politeness but as the conversation drags on, he becomes interested in Jerry’s narration of his personal life. The conversation draws out the differences between Jerry and Peter. From this, it is obvious that the social circumstances highly influenced the writer and were used to model the characters.
The 1950s symbolized a period of marked improvement in living standards. The quality of life and individual’s position could be measured by their level of income or the neighborhood in which they lived. Political reflections of the time are also evident in the story. Conservatism was the dominant political ideology with anti-communism peaking during the famed McCarthy trials. Explicit movies and the development of rock music were the first signs of rebellion against such conservatism (Halliwell 107). In addition, a report by zoologist Alfred Kinsley about the sexual histories of a sample of 16000 Americans was a great shock to the system. This is reflected in ‘The Zoo Story’ when Jerry tells Peter about his homosexual encounters as a teenager. Jerry would have belonged to the 37% that had admitted to in the Kinsley report of having had homosexual encounters in adolescence. Consequently, family values were conservative (Halliwell 108). Peter’s nuclear family with pets was considered ideal while Jerry’s lonesome wandering without any family was looked down upon (Mann 49). It is against such a background that The Zoo Story is set. The plot, the themes, and the characters’ actions are highly influenced by the social setting. The play can thus be said to have provided a social commentary on the effects of societal values and class subdivisions on the individuals involved.
Through the character of Jerry, Edward Albee tries to open the eyes of society to the consequences of alienation and the struggles of those who do not belong to the middle and upper class as well as the ignorance of those not living in the lower class (Bottoms 16). By tackling the themes of poverty, class divisions, alienation, and absurdity vs. realism, the writer sought through Jerry to educate society on the dangers of such divisions not only on the individuals in the lower class but also on those in the upper class. As such, Jerry did not set out to die in the park but only wanted to be heard. His wish was to demonstrate the suffering of the alienated in society and the part played by the upper and middle class in this suffering.
From the first word spoken, the writer sets the tone for the play and also the themes (Foote and Castleberry 104). Jerry’s alienation from society and his limited contact with people is seen in the way he strikes up a conversation. While another person would have started with a greeting, Jerry just intrudes with the statement ‘I’ve been to the Zoo.’ (Albee 54). Further on, he tells of his desire to get to know people. He says ‘I like to try to talk to one person every day…. You know, get to know them’ (Albee 56). It is obvious that Jerry is lonely and his attempt to get to know one person each day does not necessarily work. Differences between Peter and Jerry are seen as the conversation moves on. Peter is married, a wife, two daughters, a cat, and two parakeets. It seems that Peter’s life is full. He has everything that is considered important in society. However, Jerry’s experiences in life have taught him to be more perceptive. He senses that Jerry is not all that happy. He even gets Peter to admit that a boy would have made him happy and that he would prefer a dog rather than a Cat. The decisions to have a cat and the parakeets were made by his wife. Peter barely exists, it is clear his life is not as perfect as society would believe, and in a way he is not that different from Jerry.
Jerry’s perceptions as well as his probing questions make Peter uncomfortable. In mainstream society, it is not considered normal to start talking to a complete stranger about your personal life. When Jerry asks Peter about his job and how much he makes, Peter is obviously disconcerted and tries to assure Jerry that he never carries more than forty dollars at a time. He also tries to leave but Jerry changes the subject by piquing his curiosity about the events at the Zoo. This is Jerry’s way of keeping Peter close and interested in what he has to say. However, instead of talking about these events, he goes on to talk about himself. He tells Peter about his homosexual experience as a fifteen-year-old boy and how he only deals with prostitutes. From his narration, Peter as well as the audience finds out that Jerry had a mother and father. However, when Jerry was only ten years old, his mother moves north. This is the first major disappointment in his life. This explains why he was heading north at the beginning of the play. His status in life is revealed when he talked about his room at the rooming building. His neighbors are a noisy Puerto Rican family, a terrible landlady, and a dog that always chases him.
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The emptiness in Jerry’s life is symbolized by the empty picture frames. He simply has no one that important to him. He does not even have old pictures of his parents. However, the most significant and telling aspect of Jerry’s life is his monologue about the dog. He begins by stuttering and is tense when he says ‘It’s just that…. It’s just that. He finds it hard to open and tell about his desire to connect to a living creature. He says ‘If you can not deal with people, then you have to begin somewhere. This is the reason why he tries so hard to form a relationship with the dog. He also adds that ‘a person should have a way of dealing with something…….. It would be a start………. the beginning of an understanding…’ (Albee 63). From his narration of the dog story; it is obvious that Jerry’s desire is to find some connection, exactly what he is trying to do with Peter.
However, Peter does not seem to understand what Jerry wants or is trying to communicate. Jerry’s life is empty and unbearable but Peter does not seem to understand how deeply disturbed Jerry is about the entire state of affairs. Peter even questions Jerry about the empty picture frames. He just does not get it. He is stuck in his own world and routines and Jerry is trying to open his eyes to another completely different world. When Jerry finishes his dog story, Peter stammers over his words ‘I…. I don’t understand’ (Albee 67). As Jerry becomes more frustrated and challenges Peter to defend his honor and his bench, Peter wakes up to reality. Everything is not as it seems because Jerry is not just some seedy loud obnoxious character as Peter had imagined. He realizes that there is more to their conversation and the mention of the zoo.
In analyzing the play, most critics could not agree on whether the events described in the play were realistic or simply absurd. However, Edward Albee combines believable circumstances and some absurd occurrences to define the relationship between two strangers and reveal the characters’ true intentions (Bottoms 89). Critics like Mary Anderson argued that the story sought to show a pessimistic side of human alienation as well as a look at the sociopolitical aspects that can influence individuals. Others like Distky and Zimbardo viewed the play as a form of a religious allegory in which Jerry is the leader while Peter is his disciple (Distky 147). Just like Jesus, Jerry tries to teach Peter some vital lessons in which ends up dead like Jesus so that Peter can fully understand the message.
However, it is difficult for any of the critics to agree on the intentions of Jerry from the beginning of the play. At first observation, Peter seems to be the normal one. He has everything that is important and cherished within society. Regardless of this, when the play opens he is sitting on a bench in the park on a sunny Sunday afternoon reading the paper. This begs some questions; why is he not spending time with his family? He could have taken his family out for a picnic on such a lovely sunny day in the park and yet he would rather sit alone. His actions may be evidence of the fact that he is not happy or content with his life. Sitting in the park may be his way of running away from his problems. It is easy to imagine that Peter’s house with two little girls, cats, and parakeets must be noisy.
Peter goes to the bench to find some peace just like Jerry goes to the park to run away from his troubles and find someone to talk to. The two although different seem to share some common characteristics. However, unlike Jerry, Peter would rather not admit to having problems. Although he would like it if they had a dog, he still kept quiet when his wife decided to get a cat. Peter just like other individuals within his class have a false sense of security, one that makes him suspicious of Jerry. On the other hand, Jerry fully understands the circumstances in which he is in. He is desperate to find a solution or make a connection with someone or anything that he ends up looking at and acting crazy. By pushing Peter to the edge and forcing him to participate in the final act of violence, Jerry ends up demonstrating that deep down, the men are actually the same.
After telling the dog story, Jerry says that he has learned that combining both kindness and cruelty produces what he calls the teaching emotion (Albee 63). Throughout the story, Peter demonstrates kindness. In the beginning, he tries to politely shut out Jerry and then he politely listens and answers Jerry’s questions. From his experience with the dog, Jerry learns that neither regular cruelty nor kindness is capable of producing any results. This is the reason why Jerry treats Peter with both kindness and cruelty. First, he criticizes peter for his smoking habits then congratulates him for knowing the term Prosthesis. In dealing with the dog, both Jerry and the dog seem to reach an understanding when Jerry tries to poison the dog.
The interaction between Jerry and Peter is similar to that of Jerry and the dog. Peter just like the society in general views Jerry with both apprehension and pity. The differences in class and social standing do not allow for an honest relationship between the two. Society feigns indifference when dealing with the likes of Jerry. This is the point that Jerry wants to drive home. The cruelty and indifference in which he has experienced due to ignorance from people like Peter define society. When Peter is slow in understanding the message, Jerry pushes him further into a violent act which demonstrates that despite the imposed differences, the men are alike. Before dying, Jerry muses over whether his actions were planned. However, his final act can be seen as an attempt to drive the point to him and make Peter understand.
Albee, Edward et al. Great American One-act Plays. Stuttgart: Ernst Klett Verlag, 2001.
Bottoms, Stephen. The Cambridge Companion to Edward Albee. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Distky, John. The onstage Christ: studies in the persistence of a theme. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1980.
Foote, Horton and Castleberry, Marion. Genesis of an American playwright. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2004.
Halliwell, Martin. American culture in the 1950s. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
Mann, Bruce. Edward Albee: a casebook. New York: Routledge, 2003.