The Zoo Story Essay
The Zoo Story
Edward Albee, in his play The Zoo Story, demonstrates his mastery of “the theater of the absurd. ” Through absurdity he manages to bring to light the underlying social norms and limitations upon real human emotion and existence imposed by American culture. Superficially Jerry is the absurd character, but as the one act play progresses it becomes apparent that Albee intends to reveal the very real absurdity inherent in ordinary, everyday discourse and activity—this is provided by Peter.
Peter is repeatedly referred to by Jerry as a vegetable; he seems to be vacuous in the sense that he behaves and acts absolutely as he is expected to by the norms of society. He is properly polite and his words are entirely empty; he almost never says what he actually feels, only what he believes it is appropriate to say. The plot is entirely linear, although the dialogue is anything but. Essentially, the play is just about Jerry and Peter as they happen to encounter one another at the park. They speak with each other; then Peter stabs Jerry and leaves him to die.
So, the plot is linear in that it merely follows these events in real time as they happen. However, Jerry’s attempted explanations surrounding his life and the events that made-up his day are deliberately presented in a disjointed manner. Jerry seems to have trouble communicating with other animals; yet, we come to realize by the end, that he is far more successful in conveying his innermost emotions than Peter is. His explanation of why he went to the zoo makes no sense to a man who works with words every day—Peter is a publisher.
There is no polite or unobtrusive answer to the question of why Jerry went to the zoo; as a result, he honestly tells Peter his lonely and violent motivations. This is why Jerry’s “zoo story” begins with a description of his apartment complex, and the perverse woman that is his landlord. It is important that this disorderly account of Jerry’s visit to the zoo actually occur in the straightforward structure of a simple conversation in a park: Peter becomes the audience to this unbridled expression of emotion and sin imposed upon his structured life.
In a very literal sense, Jerry and Peter are simply animals. They have limitations placed upon their actions just as the animals in the zoo are kept behind bars. While Peter seems wholly content with his restricted position—or perhaps he is unaware that he is confined at all—Jerry seems to bristle at the very idea. To Jerry the orderly functioning of society has prevented him from reaching out to other people in any meaningful way. In this regard, he is rather fascinated by Peter—a man who embodies everything ordinary and artificial.
When Peter jumps to conclusions about Jerry’s life he is asked, “What were you trying to do? Make sense out of things? Bring order? The old pigeonhole bit? ” (Albee, 25). By posing these questions Jerry is revealing his interest in the mechanisms of Peter’s thought, but he also seems to be attempting to teach Peter something; to lead him to a conclusion which he has already reached. Jerry wants to reach out and touch Peter, but he cannot be successful until Peter realizes in what way he is restrained.
Jerry is an individual type character: understanding his psychology is more important than his actual function in the play. Obviously, he is trying to, and eventually succeeds, in bringing about a change in Peter; but the exhibition of this change is less important than grasping the reason why Jerry wants to succeed. Basically, the play’s purpose is to uncover the psychology of the characters; the audience gets the sense that any structuring of the plot which achieved this would ultimately convey the same messages.
Accordingly, Peter is also an individual type character, but this is dependent upon his reciprocal relationship with Jerry. In other words, Jerry and Peter’s particular psychological states are significant in and of themselves, but they require each other’s interaction to fully reveal the gravity of their existences. We could not possibly understand anything meaningful about Peter without Jerry; similarly, Jerry can only be perceived as being erratic or insane once Peter’s perspective is understood.