The Zoo Story

The Zoo Story Summary and Analysis of Pages 5-9


Jerry then subjects Peter to a series of rapid-fire questions about where he lives, his job, his income, and his favorite authors. We learn that Peter is an executive at a textbook publishing house, where he earns a handsome salary. He lives on the Upper East Side. Jerry gently mocks him, asking if he reads both Baudelaire and J.P. Marquand.

Jerry seems reluctant to disclose similar information about himself, but Peter infers that he lives in Greenwich Village – a neighborhood that was a refuge for bohemians at the time Albee wrote the play.

Jerry’s residency there would help explain his strange behavior, but Jerry explains that he actually lives on the Upper West Side in a tiny, run-down apartment. He proceeds to give a long, unflattering description of his neighbors, a large Puerto Rican family and a gay African-American man. His apartment is mostly furnished with junk, including two empty picture frames. When Peter asks why he lives in such an unpleasant place, Jerry explains that he is too poor to live elsewhere.

After some prodding, Jerry finally volunteers some information about himself. He is completely alone in life. His mother abandoned him and his father when Jerry was ten years old, and she died in Alabama shortly thereafter. Not long after her death, his father committed suicide by walking in front of a bus. After that, Jerry moved in with his dour, straight-laced aunt, who died the day he graduated high school.

It is only at this point that the men introduce themselves formally to one another, and volunteer their names.


In this section, Albee continues to develop the vast cultural and socioeconomic gap between Peter and Jerry. Although they live near each other and come from the same broad cultural background, Jerry’s difficult life seems to have psychologically stunted him, leaving him unable to forge close relationships or hold a conventional job. If the play is indeed about the growth of Peter's awareness, then his attempts to understand someone like Jerry are crucial towards that development.

It is telling that one of Peter’s first questions is why Jerry does not simply move out from his tiny apartment. Peter’s own background colors his perception of Jerry, and it does not occur to him that Jerry might lack the financial resources or the emotional resolve to improve his life. Peter’s cultural background also informs his guess about Jerry’s neighborhood; his stereotypes about Greenwich Village and bohemians lead him to make assumptions about Jerry. When Jerry’s description of his living situation completely upends Peter’s expectations, we realize that Peter’s worldview is essentially blinkered, despite the fact that he is ostensibly more worldly than Jerry.

Jerry’s list of his possessions efficiently reveals much about his personality and life. Many of the objects in Jerry’s apartment — the can-opener, the small amount of dishware, the pornography — connote that he is not only single, but lonely. He clearly does not interact often with people, and eats most of his meals alone. Of course, Jerry established this in the previous section when he explained that most of his interactions with others are superficial, but these details provide objective evidence of what might otherwise be a designed self-assessment. Provided he is telling the truth, his social isolation is overwhelming.

The objects in Jerry’s apartment also betray a sense of whimsy. The empty picture frames and the "sea-rounded rocks" from his childhood have no practical purpose, but they suggest that Jerry maintains a strong sense of nostalgia for his early life, despite how traumatic it was. Jerry is not simply a crazy, lonely man. He clearly has a sentimental, emotional side that makes the tragedy of his life greater, and the strangeness of his behavior more unsettling.

The empty picture frames are especially notable because they can be interpreted in several different ways. They could imply that Jerry has lost people who are important to him. However, they could also indicate hope for the future: Jerry might be saving the frames for pictures of the friends and family he hopes to later meet. Peter also notices the significance of the two empty frames, and asks Jerry about it. Jerry demurs about their deeper significance, only commenting that he has no pictures to put in them. The audience is left to determine why he bothers to keep the frames. Such ambiguity is a hallmark of work considered absurdist.

Jerry’s account of his life informs Peter and the audience of a tragic past; however, it also shows that Jerry has a very literary sensibility and sees the world in poetic terms. When Peter asks about the picture frames, he immediately launches into an account of his life story. His monologue is rich with wordplay and figurative languages. He compares his family life to a vaudeville show, and uses his mother’s death as an opportunity to relate his views about death in general. He conceives of death as “part[ing] with the ghost” (9). This is most likely a reference to the separation of body and spirit. Although the word ghost usually refers to a supernatural apparition, it can also refer to a person’s soul – in fact, the word comes from the German geist, which refers to the mind or the spirit. Much as some of the objects show Jerry's nostalgic side, this speech and others reveal a poetic element to his character.

Jerry’s brief question about Peter’s literary tastes provides further insight into both men's respective personalities and worldviews. Jerry assumes that Peter reads both Baudelaire and J.P. Marquand — that he is engaged with both high and low culture. (It should be noted that some modern editions of The Zoo Story replace J.P. Marquand with Stephen King, presumably so the audience will understand that Jerry is referring to a popular genre author.) Peter confirms that he reads both authors, but his fumbling answer suggests that he is more concerned about being diplomatic than he is about confessing passion for literature. Jerry, who asked the question, seems to have much stronger opinions about art, which reinforces the critical, literary sensibilities that he revealed in his description of his apartment.

This distinction could help to explain Jerry's purpose, which by this point seems far more deliberate than his initial musings suggested. Jerry clearly suffers from mental instability, but his approach to Peter suggests a deliberateness of purpose, not the ramblings of a nutcase. The fact that he continues to ask questions about areas in which Peter's life is different than his suggests that he is trying to unsettle Peter, to force the latter man to confront his pre-conceived notions and then suffer in the face of them. At this point in the play, we may not know Jerry's exact objective, but we begin to understand that he picked Peter precisely because the man seemed so different than him, and now wishes to exploit those differences to achieve his effect.

It is worth questioning why Peter and Jerry introduce themselves to each other so late in the play. Because The Zoo Story is so short, it may not seem like much time has passed since the beginning, but the truth is that we do not learn their names until one-third of the way through. Further, in performance, many of the speeches take longer to speak than they do to read. And yet this late introduction serves the purpose of downplaying the men's individuality. Albee's choice suggests that Peter and Jerry are everymen, meant to embody qualities that every person has to a greater or lesser extent. One could extend this interpretation to mean that they are both potential versions of one another, or to suggest that we tend to see one another superficially, in terms of our outward characteristics rather than in terms of our individual personalities.

Either way, the delayed introduction also signals a turning point in Jerry and Peter’s relationship. After some resistance from Peter, they have finally both conceded that they are having a substantive, meaningful conversation that warrants an introduction. Now, Jerry's real game begins.