“What I wanted to get at is the value difference between pornographic playing-cards when you’re a kid, and pornographic playing-cards when you’re older. It’s that when you’re a kid you use the cards as a substitute for real experience, and when you’re older you use real experience as a substitute for the fantasy.”
Many critics have noted The Zoo Story's rich erotic subtext. However, Albee only addresses sex explicitly a few times in the play. Jerry's explanation of the pornographic playing cards is one of those instances. Here, Jerry observes the importance of fantasy in male sexuality. When he was a child, the cards allowed Jerry to imagine becoming an ideal man, surrounded by beautiful, subservient women. However, now that he has grown into an adult isolated from mainstream society, the cards are only a mocking reminder of what he cannot have. Mainstream society both entices and demeans him. This idea has special significance if one considers Jerry a closeted homosexual, as critics like Zaller have argued. In this case, living under repression, fantasy would provide his only erotic outlet. Either way, Jerry's nostalgia for childhood is unmistakable in this passage, which makes his otherwise aggressive behavior both more relatable and more nuanced.
“Fact is better left to fiction.”
Jerry speaks this line as a criticism of Peter, whose privileged lifestyle means that he only experiences the grittier aspects of life through fiction. However, this brief observation about truth and storytelling would have resonated strongly for Albee, who dedicated his life to presenting fiction in the form of drama. Jerry's comment initially seems like a paradox, but his point is that fiction can sometimes present deep truths about the human experience in a way that factual narratives cannot. Fiction generally allows the author more freedom to explore the depths of the characters' personalities – something that Albee does at length in The Zoo Story. In contrast, real events are often confusing, and can be interpreted in many different ways, which means that it can be hard to extract deep, universal truths from them. Because The Zoo Story exists on the line between stylized theatricality and grounded realism, this sentiment provides an interesting lens through which to understand Albee's ultimate purpose and approach.
“Sometimes it’s necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly.”
Jerry provides this idea as the moral of his story about the dog. On the surface, this passage merely means that Jerry was able to befriend his landlady's dog only because he tried to kill it. However, the sentiment can also be applied to his relationship with Peter. Like the dog, Peter is at first unwilling to befriend Jerry. And as in the dog story, Jerry's relationship with Peter shifts from friendliness to violence relatively quickly. In the dog story, Jerry was ultimately able to "come back [the] short distance correctly" -nthat is, to befriend the dog. If the passage is applied to his relationship with Peter, it would imply that Peter will eventually look back fondly on Jerry - or at least take the odd transient seriously.
And yet considering the context, the passage implies that 'correctness' is not necessarily enlivening or satisfying. At the end of Jerry's time with the dog, they practically ignore one another. As though in imitation of urban residents, they simply co-exist by relying on civility and politeness. For someone like Jerry, who desperately needs intimacy, this "short distance" is only a reminder of what he lacks in life. It is telling that he decides with Peter to go out in a blaze of glory rather than fade into a meaningless routine of politeness and civility.
"Now, here is what I had wanted to happen: I had tried to love, and I had tried to kill, and both had been unsuccessful by themselves. I hoped––and I don't really know why I expected the dog to understand anything, much less my motivations––I hoped that the dog would understand."
There are many parallels between Jerry's interactions with his landlady's dog and the ones he has with Peter. Jerry invites this comparison when he notes elsewhere in the text that people can use animals to learn how to get along with other people. Taken that way, this passage serves as Jerry's statement of purpose. He wants Peter to "understand" him, and he is willing to use extreme methods to achieve that end.
This passage also offers insight into Jerry's troubled personality. For Jerry, there seems to be a very thin line between love and hate, between friendliness and violence. He is a person with extreme emotions, who cannot occupy a middle ground between intimacy and enmity. In fact, it touches on Jerry's tendency to transform emotional/sexual feelings into violent ones. When the dog rejects Jerry's attempts at friendship, then, the only alternative Jerry can see is to kill him. This foreshadows Jerry's violent response when Peter tries to leave at the end of the play.
"It's just that––it's just that if you can't deal with people, you have to make a start somewhere. With animals. Don't you see? A person has to find a way of dealing with something. If not with people––if not with people––something."
As Peter and the audience get to know Jerry, it becomes clear that Jerry is primarily motivated by loneliness. All of the decisions Jerry makes in The Zoo Story are driven by a primal drive to counteract his deep sense of isolation. His loneliness results not only from a lack of friends and family, but also from a deep intellectual loneliness, which he has built up over the years as he realized there is no one who truly understands and empathizes with him. Ironically, his attempts to rebuild his life consist of trying to explain himself and his thoughts to animals – beings that are even less capable of understanding him than a stranger like Peter. In a certain way, then, Jerry's quest is a futile and vicious circle. He works to find intimacy, and then redoubles his intensity when he fails, meaning that the next failure will be doubly intense for him. That such a process would end in violence seems almost inevitably tragic.
“I don’t know what I was thinking about; of course you don’t understand. I don’t live in your block; I’m not married with two parakeets, or whatever your set-up is. I am a permanent transient, and my home is the sickening rooming-houses... on the West Side of New York City, which is the greatest city in the world. Amen.”
Throughout The Zoo Story, the class difference between Peter and Jerry causes misunderstandings. Ultimately, the men can never quite communicate because of this distinction. Near the end of the play, from which this passage is taken, Jerry finally acknowledges this difference explicitly, and meditates on its effects. He suggests that despite Peter's best intentions, he is unable to empathize with Jerry as well as he could with someone of his own class. Of course, Jerry also contributes to this problem. Because he assumes that Peter is uninterested in him and incapable of understanding his thoughts and experiences, Jerry makes little genuine effort to connect with Peter. While he does spend a great deal of time talking to Peter, Jerry does not attempt to present his observations and anecdotes in a way that Peter will find appealing or easy to comprehend. Instead, he is aggressive and judgmental from the beginning. Because of this aggression, Jerry is just as responsible for the communication gap as Peter is. Albee's ultimate point, then, seems to be that our world enforces distinctions that cannot be overcome, and which are doubly tragic when one endeavors futilely to overcome them nevertheless.
“People can’t have everything they want. You should know that; it’s a rule; people can have some of the things they want, but they can’t have everything.”
Peter's short lecture comes when Jerry attempts to take his spot on the bench. There is a certain irony in the fact that Peter shows more confidence and moral certainty when arguing about space on a bench than he has previously shown over the course of the entire play. It is the rhetoric of the businessman, who assumes he has some insight into want and fairness. His rhetoric is particularly interesting when considered in the context of the class difference between the two men. Compared to Jerry, Peter seems to have everything a man could want, but he seems to believe that deprivation (at least in small amounts) is essential to the human experience. Jerry, who has encountered a great deal more disappointment than Peter, might well find this proclamation insensitive, which would explain why he responds with antagonistic insults.
Of course, Peter does not seem entirely happy, meaning he has a right to this sentiment. Not only could one argue he is a repressed homosexual (as some critics have), but the way in which his manner of dress conflicts with his actual profession suggests that he too is searching for greater meaning in his life. That the men constantly butt heads over their differences, rather than finding a way to sympathize over their shared discontent, allows the play to explore the nature of miscommunication.
“I’m on your precious bench, and you’re never going to have it for yourself again.”
As the argument over the bench escalates, Peter and Jerry become increasingly angry and antagonistic toward each other. However, Jerry's taunting transcends personal insult; it also resonates with the class difference between the two men, which has hovered over the action for the entire play. The sarcastic reference to Peter's "precious bench" is an attack on the middle class's petty materialism, and his threat that Peter will "never ... have it for yourself again" an ominous challenge to the status quo. In many ways, Jerry is deliberately playing on the great fear of the middle and upper class: that the alienated will one day rebel. In another way, he is merely asking in yet another ironically aggressive manner for those who have something to share that something with others, in a gesture of intimacy if not economy.
“You have everything in the world you want; you’ve told me about your home, and your family, and your own little zoo. You have everything, and now you want this bench. Are these the things men fight for? Tell me, Peter, is this bench, this iron and this wood, is this your honour? Is this the thing in the world you’d fight for? Can you think of anything more absurd?”
Here, Jerry spells out one of The Zoo Story's most important themes: the absurdity of life and the human experience. Jerry's ideas are based on those of other absurdist writers, such as Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, and Albert Camus. Each of these authors was deeply skeptical about whether human triumphs and suffering had meaning, and they were especially suspicious of the kind of capitalistic materialism that pervaded American culture when Albee wrote The Zoo Story in 1960. Peter and his conventional, upper middle-class lifestyle embody the petty, insignificant 'rat race' that absurdists tended to abhor. One of the play's master-strokes is that these ideas are grounded in Jerry's very real and relateable pain, his overwhelming desire to find intimacy in life. What is really tragic about the play is not that we are given to petty materialism; it is that we have traded compassion and transcendent connections for that materialism.
“I came unto you and you have comforted me. Dear Peter.”
Jerry's dying words to Peter have several possible interpretations. According to the critic Robert B. Bennet, Jerry's archaic, quasi-biblical phrasing sets him up as a martyr, an innocent victim of modern society's indifference to the less fortunate. (An alternate interpretation is that Jerry 'martyrs' himself to teach Peter a lesson about the importance of human connection.) However, other critics read this line as an erotic moment in a play rife with sexual subtexts. Robert Zaller points out that there is a double entendre when Jerry says that he "came unto" Peter – an interpretation that is reinforced by the stage direction that Jerry should laugh slightly when saying this. In this interpretation, the line is Jerry's last, desperate attempt to find the love and intimacy that was missing from so much of his life, and to battle with the repressive society that calls his love transgressive. No matter how one interprets the lines, they do reveal that Jerry's interactions with Peter are not the random ramblings of a madman, but instead do have a deliberate purpose.
The Zoo Story Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Zoo Story is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.