The Zoo Story

The Zoo Story Summary and Analysis of Pages 19-27


Jerry’s story deeply disturbs Peter, who tearfully asks him why Jerry is sharing such detail. At first, Jerry is confused that Peter did not understand the point of the story, but he gradually realizes that Peter’s conventional lifestyle prevents him from doing so. Jerry then wonders whether Peter is confused or annoyed by him.

Peter tries to excuse himself and leave, but Jerry begs him to stay and tickles him. Peter laughs hysterically, and the moment lightens the mood, making him less frightened of Jerry.

Jerry insists Peter give him as much space as possible on the bench, and then begins to tell the story of what happened at the zoo. He had gone there to observe how people and animals interact with each other.

However, he interrupts his own story to demand more space on the bench. When Peter does not give him what he wants, Jerry begins to punch Peter. Though Peter initially insults Jerry, calling him crazy, he soon begins to argue over his space just as vehemently as Jerry is demanding is. Peter insists that he sits in this spot every Sunday, and does not feel obligated to cede space to Jerry.

The men argue, and Peter threatens to call for the police, although Jerry points out that they are probably too busy chasing down the gay men who have sex in the park to deal with such a small issue. Peter puts this to the test, and calls out. It turns out that Jerry is right – no one responds to Peter’s cries. Jerry taunts Peter for getting so worked up over and possessive about the bench.

Peter eventually realizes the absurdity of the situation, and tries to leave. However, Jerry pulls a knife on him, and insists that Peter fight for the bench. Horrified by this sudden turn of events, Peter refuses to fight. Jerry tosses the knife on the ground, and demands that Peter pick it up. Peter complies, and holds the weapon out to keep Jerry away. But Jerry charges him, impaling himself on the blade.

At first, Jerry hyperventilates and cries out in agony, but he soon adopts a calm affect, thanking Peter for what he has done. Peter weeps in shock as Jerry wipes the fingerprints off the knife and urges Peter to run away before someone comes and arrests him. Before Peter leaves, Jerry reminds him not to forget his book.

Grabbing the book, Peter dashes off as Jerry dies.


Jerry’s death at the end of The Zoo Story represents a culmination of all the play’s main themes. Although Jerry’s death may seem sudden, it is in fact foreshadowed throughout the play, and is the logical result of his personality and behavior.

In telling Peter his life story, Jerry reveals that he is poor, socially isolated, and haunted by a traumatic past — three factors that, then as now, put individuals at risk for suicide. He also demonstrates rapid mood swings and a high level of impulsiveness. These qualities are evident most prominently in the dog story, in which Jerry rapidly shifted from liking the dog to wanting to murder it, but they manifest throughout the story, including when he insists that Peter fight him for space on the bench.

There are a variety of possible explanations for Jerry’s choice to involve Peter in his suicide. Social isolation and alienation being the dominant forces of Jerry's life, they might be his prime motivation for wanting to die. And yet even so, it is interesting that he feels compelled to involve someone else in the act. Certainly, this inclusion could be the result of a unconscious desire, one that he might not have the strength to carry through himself. The Freudian undertones in the sexual and aggressive themes could support this interpretation. But as previously noted in the Analysis, Jerry's entire approach seems far more deliberate than an unconscious impulse would explain.

A more interesting interpretation of this choice involves his lack of social intimacy. By forcing another person to participate in the act, Jerry is achieving the profound intimacy that has so often eluded him in the past. Further this intimacy has a sexual undertone, considering that he eagerly runs towards Peter, who holds out a knife, a clearly phallic symbol. Jerry reveals familiarity with Sigmund Freud's work at the beginning of the play, and the phallic symbolism of his suicide fits closely with Freud’s ideas about repressed sexuality sublimating into violence. There is also a subtle double entendre when Jerry proclaims that he “came unto” Peter (26). Although some readers might write this off as unintentional, Jerry is instructed to laugh quietly after saying this, suggesting that Albee is aware of the word’s sexual connotation.

There is another explicit reference to homosexuality when Jerry refers to the "queens" – that is, gay men who meet for anonymous sex in Central Park. When Peter threatens to call the police, Jerry observes that the police will be too busy trying to stop these assignations to answer Peter’s call. This was a real — and very common — phenomenon at the time; indeed, it was so well-known that criminals targeted gay men in Central Park for muggings because they knew that these men would be reluctant to report the mugging to the police (Rosenzweig & Blackmar 479).

Robert B. Bennet argues that Jerry’s death is not a sexual act, but rather a Christ-like sacrifice (55). This interpretation is largely based on Jerry’s prostrate position at the end of the play, and on the quasi-biblical phrasing he uses in his final words to Peter: “I came unto you . . . and you have comforted me. Dear Peter” (26). In this interpretation, Jerry’s suicide is not a result of his personal history or his circumstances, but rather an act of martyrdom. He sacrifices himself to teach Peter an unforgettable lesson about the importance of human connection in the alienating urban environment. If we accept this interpretation, then the play becomes primarily about Peter's awakening to the world outside of his carefully constructed life of civility and politeness.

Jerry’s death also ties into the animal motif that appears throughout the play. The act of violent savagery reinforces Albee’s suggestion that people are more animalistic than they initially appear. The short piece of the zoo story that the audience hears before Peter and Jerry begin to fight also relates to the animal motif. Jerry repeats his opinion that observing “the way animals exist with each other, and with people, too” can lend insight on human interaction (21). From this vantage, then Jerry's lesson to Peter is less about intimacy than it is about the true nature of humanity.

More enlightening, though, is Jerry’s observation that he could not get an accurate understanding of how animals interact because “everyone [was] separated by bars from everyone else, the animals for the most part from each other, and always the people from the animals.” This point might be the key to understanding Jerry’s alienation — the urban environment of New York (or any large city) physically and psychically compartmentalizes people, preventing them from interacting each other. Albee drives home this connection by comparing both Peter and Jerry to animals at the end of the play; Jerry is described as a “fatally wounded animal” in the stage directions, and as he dies, Jerry reassures Peter that despite his emotional distance, Peter is an animal and not a vegetable (26).

The scholar Mary N. Nilan blames the socioeconomic disparity between Peter and Jerry for their ultimate failure to connect. She argues that Peter and Jerry’s conversation is the ultimate failure – for Jerry, it is a last-ditch attempt to cure his loneliness. When the men fail to connect, he gives up and succumbs to a physical manifestation of his loneliness. She assigns responsibility to this failure to both Peter and Jerry, neither of which are willing to look beyond their own worlds and attempt to understand the perspectives of those with different experiences. According to Nilan, this narcissism would have been especially noticeable in New York at the end of the 1950s – the city was deeply polarized economically. Albee’s play, then, can be read as a critique of these attitudes.

One could certainly criticize a work like this for its lack of a clear message. The motifs and themes are prominent enough, and yet this short play invites so many interpretations that it is can seem strangely oblique. And yet familiarity with Albee's work (and that of his absurdist theatre peers) reveals that such ambiguity is exactly what he treasures. Albee insists that his plays come intuitively, their meanings fresh to him, rather than pre-decided. What is undeniable about The Zoo Story is the presence of a questioning, pained and certain authorial voice. What that voice is saying is not entirely clear, but that should be seen as a strength of the writing, rather than as a deficit.