The Zoo Story

The Zoo Story Summary and Analysis of Pages 9-12


Peter asks again about the picture frames, wondering whether Jerry might a girlfriend whose picture could be placed in one. Jerry responds that he has never had sex with any woman more than once, although he did have an ongoing relationship with another boy when he was a teenager. The men banter briefly about the set of pornographic playing cards that Jerry admits to keeping in his apartment, but Jerry changes the subject, insisting he would rather tell Peter about his trip to the zoo.

But instead of talking about the zoo, Jerry describes his landlady, a drunken, idiotic woman who is constantly trying to seduce him. He usually evades the seduction by convincing her that they slept together the day before and that he is not ready to do so again. Because of her drunkenness, she believes him.

Jerry promises that he will tell Peter about the zoo soon, but first wants to tell the story of his landlady’s dog. Jerry reminds Peter that Peter has chosen to be there, and can leave any time. Peter uncomfortably agrees to hear the story, and Jerry launches into it.


As The Zoo Story approaches its midpoint, Albee addresses a taboo topic: homosexuality. Albee himself is gay, and although he generally does not discuss his sexuality in public, he has never hidden the fact of his preference. Those who are familiar with his work are generally aware of his sexuality.

Homosexuality is only discussed once in the text, when Jerry mentions his childhood relationship with another boy. Because he swiftly adds that he has since that time only had sex with women, modern readers might be tempted to write off Jerry’s dalliance as a minor detail. But according to the critic Robert Zaller, the moment would have been so shocking to an audience in 1960 that it might well have colored their interpretation of the whole play. Certainly, when Jerry forces Peter to stab him at the end of the play, the moment is full of phallic significance, thereby suggesting that Jerry's entire purpose has been somehow a reflection of repressed desires. In this way, the The Zoo Story can be seen as an allegory about homosexuality.

The sexual undertones of The Zoo Story offer a wide variety of interpretations. Zaller describes the play as a “suppressed gay love story.” He writes that Peter and Jerry’s conversation reflects a mutual attraction, and they consummate their relationship the only way that their repressive culture will allow them to – through violence. Jerry’s allusion to Freud on p. 2 supports this interpretation. At the very least, it shows that Freud’s theories, many of which dealt with sexuality and repression, were at the forefront of Albee’s mind when he wrote the play. Freud wrote extensively about sexual symbolism and the sublimation of sexuality into violence. By referring to Freud early in the play, Albee invites audiences to apply Freud’s theories to this relationship.

The critic John M. Clum also sees The Zoo Story as a homosexual love story set deep in the closet of a repressive society. He notes that Albee portrays homosexual love as an innocent pleasure of adolescence, free of the tensions and misogyny of heterosexual relationships. Jerry speaks of his childhood fling affectionately, but seems tortured by his attempts at heterosexual relationships that followed. This interpretation is important because it ties the play’s sexual themes to its exploration of urban alienation in general. Zaller argues that audiences who interpret The Zoo Story as being about “urban anomie” are misguided, since the play is exclusively about sexuality. Clum, on the other hand, acknowledges that Albee’s play addresses many aspects of urban life — not just the sexual. The themes of alienation parallel and enhance those of urban alienation.

In this section, Jerry and Peter’s conversation turns briefly to the pornographic playing cards Jerry mentioned earlier in the play. Like the rest of Jerry’s possessions, the playing cards indicate a sense of quirkiness and whimsy. The fact that Jerry keeps suggestive playing cards instead of books or magazines hints at a certain nostalgia for childhood; it also indicates a lack of seriousness about sex (with women, at least). Jerry himself acknowledges that the cards are childish, and points out that for many men, sexual fantasy is more gratifying than actual sex. Again, this fits well with the interpretation of The Zoo Story as a homosexual allegory. For a gay man in 1960, fantasy would have been a much more attainable of gratification than real sex. But even if one downplays the sexual interpretation, Jerry's attitudes about the cards suggests that he is more comfortable with an imitation of life than with actual life. After all, the latter makes him feel like a loser and a failure, while suggestive cards allow him to concoct his own fantasy. He is able to be of importance in his own mind, rather than an irrelevant cog in the machinery of an uncaring city.

In this section, Jerry comes very close to telling Peter the eponymous zoo story. Both men seem to find the Central Park Zoo a more comfortable topic than sexuality is. However, the zoo story is a classic MacGuffin – it drives the plot, but hardly matters. The characters spend the entire play pursuing it, but we never hear the complete story because Jerry always becomes distracted when he begins to tell it. Often, stories that use a MacGuffin are about the journey the characters experience rather than the end goal. Similarly, Albee's play is not about an 'event' but rather about the tragedy of this strange relationship.

The fact that Jerry never tells the complete zoo story is another reason why this play tends to draw comparisons with Waiting for Godot. In Beckett’s play, Vladimir and Estragon wait endlessly for a character named Godot, whose significance is never explained. Although the plot of that play revolves around the absent Godot, Beckett is really more concerned with showcasing Vladimir and Estragon’s thoughts, feelings, and interactions with each other. Albee’s approach is very similar; the zoo story is nothing more than a plot device that provides structure and forward motion to the interaction between Peter and Jerry. And of course, by doing so with a suggestion of animals, it reminds us of the alienation Albee wants us to feel about these men who show progressively more of their animal natures instead of their civilized faces.