In Edward Albee’s play, The Zoo Story, Jerry tells Peter bizarre stories about people he has encountered that influence his shallow and lonely existence, to demonstrate Albee’s view that society is unnecessarily consumed by indifference, unkindness, weakness, and emptiness. In an attempt to cause Peter to realize that his own life is filled with emptiness and shallowness, Jerry tells Peter about the lives of some of the people in his boarding house. He talks about the colored queen, the Puerto Rican family, the landlady, and the woman who cries all the time, in hopes of causing Peter to compare the meaninglessness of his life to their lives. In doing this, Jerry hopes Peter will realize that his life can have substance if he so chooses. Jerry is motivated to use his knowledge of the world around him to help Peter because he feels that it is important for him to use his observations to change the life of someone else for the better. He anticipates the vibrant attitude change that will consume Peter when he mentions early into their conversation that he will read about “it” in the papers tomorrow (Albee 15). Jerry is confident that he has what it takes to show Peter the light, and thus begins to tell him “The Zoo Story.”
Some of Albee’s negative views of society can be seen when Jerry describes the colored queen that lives in his apartment building. The colored queen is overly concerned with his outward appearance. Through Jerry’s description of the queen, it becomes obvious that he is quite self-centered and narcissistic. According to Jerry, he usually has his door wide open, as if he is pleading for others to watch him. This is like many people in society who need constant attention in order to feel like they are important and full of self worth. They rely on how others perceive them instead of how they perceive themselves. Albee is commenting that people need to foster their inner selves in addition to what they allow others to see on the outside.
Another interesting piece of information that Jerry presents to Peter about the colored queen is that he always leaves the door open when he is plucking his eyebrows. Not only does this reinforce the fact that he is self-absorbed and materialistic, but it tells something about the inside of his persona as well. The act of plucking one’s eyebrows is quite painful, and the fact that he leaves his door open when committing this act of self-mutilation reflects the idea that he wants society to be aware of his inner pain and strife. People are constantly looking for sympathy and for others to tell them that “everything will be all right.” The colored queen is no different. He wants people to be aware that he feels pain. Keeping his door open shows that he, like the rest society, is crying out for help, and wants to be noticed and cared for.
While the colored queen represents the part of society that wallows in their own self pity, Albee points out through the use of other minor characters that there are other ways of avoiding pain, and dealing with that pain. The Puerto Rican family that lives in Jerry’s building tries to escape pain instead of dealing with it or looking for help. Their method is avoidance. They avoid pain by constantly having fun. Jerry mentions that they entertain a lot, and it is through entertaining and acting jovially that they avoid the pressures of everyday life. Instead of dealing with the stresses of their lives and trying to work towards bettering their places in the world, they escape and avoid this pain by not thinking about it.
Another way that people deal with pain is bottling it all up. By not releasing the strain that holds them down, they do not allow themselves to become more enlightened from the experience. The woman who cries all the time in Jerry’s building shows Albee’s representation of this type of person. Her constant sobbing represents the fact that all people deal with various crises on a daily basis. People almost always focus on the negative aspects of their lives. Albee uses the symbol of the woman’s constant crying to show that people need to focus on the positive things in their lives instead of the negative. It is so easy to become consumed by life’s problems, but if you only think about the things in your life that are not going your way, you will become like the woman in the boarding house who sits alone in her room all day wallowing in her sorrow. Albee is commenting that people should be the masters of their own destinies. People have the choice to either create a reality for themselves in which they experience all realms of the emotional plane, or they could close themselves off to the world and focus on how their lives are not going as planned. Jerry tells Peter about this woman in hopes that it will make him realize that he has the ability to choose his values in life and how he wants his life to proceed.
The one character in the play that embodies all of Albee’s views of reality pertaining to the indifference, unkindness, weakness, and emptiness in the world is Jerry’s landlady. She is “a fat, ugly, mean, stupid, unwashed, misanthropic, cheap, drunken bag of garbage” (Albee, 27). Peter is thoroughly shocked by her description, and does not believe that people like her really exist. She symbolizes all that is wrong with society. She spies on the people that enter the building because her own life is so empty that she needs to use her energy looking at the lives of others. She is a drunkard who drinks all day to escape her problems. She is so lustful of Jerry that she always rubs her body up against his although he does not reciprocate the feelings. The only way she gets Jerry to talk to her is by cornering him, which demonstrates how people in society usually interact with others only when they are forced to.
After telling Peter about all the various encounters Jerry faces day after day in his apartment building, Jerry puts Peter to the test. He tests Peter to see if he has learned anything from their conversation. He provokes Peter to defend himself: to defend his integrity, to defend his self-worth, to defend his bench, and to defend his life. Jerry forces Peter to take action. He forces him to be different from all the people from the boarding house. Peter can no longer hide from his problems. He can no longer escape his life by taking refuge in Central Park on Sunday afternoons. Never again can he sit idly by while his integrity is being compromised. Jerry has changed Peter. He has changed him for the better.
Albee says in his preface that “the high points of a person’s life can be appreciated so often only in retrospect” (Albee, 8). Jerry has recounted some of the most meaningful tidbits of his existence during this conversation to Peter. He let out many of his old memories and his views of society and the people in it. It appears that he finally appreciates his life. Jerry is glad that he is different from everyone else. He is glad that he does not bring attention to himself due to his appearance only. He is content that he does not escape reality by constantly having fun and avoiding pain, and he is happy that he does not wallow in his self-pity.
By the finish of the play, it becomes apparent that Jerry is fulfilled enough with his existence, and can die a happy human being. He provokes Peter to the point where he will defend himself for control of the bench. Jerry succeeds in getting Peter to help him kill himself. Jerry impales himself on the knife from Peter’s outstretched arm. Jerry kills himself because he is finally content with his existence. He realizes that he has the ability to cause changes in the lives of others, and he realizes that he has a perception of the world around him more acute than most people do. He realizes that by telling Peter about the sad, lonely, empty people from his boarding house, Jerry has caused Peter to have a heightened perception of reality, and therefore can die a happy man because he has fulfilled his life’s work.