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Alienation of American Society in Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story

Big cities provide a picture of urbanite people who are physically embedded in a tight web of others yet who may feel psychologically almost totally alienated. This article attempts to reveal the problems of alienation in American society, especially in big American cities, in the mid-twentieth century as seen in Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story. The problems of alienation, as experienced by Jerry, is a consequence of modernism and social disparity in the society. To illustrate the point the analysis of the play makes reference to the social relations of people living in big American cities.

Keywords: alienation, modernism, social disparity.


Living in a big metropolitan city is living in a world of strangers (Lyn Lofland qtd. In Krupat, 1985:59). There are a lot of people coming from many different ethnic and social backgrounds with many distinctive ways of life. Everyday people pass one another on the street, yet they do not know each other, and generally these people do not make any effort to enter into relationships. Many people in metropolitan cities seems to have lost the sense of communal life as these people are occupied by their personal businesses. As such, social relationships weaken and this creates a barrier to establishing contact with others. The barrier to contact becomes wider when there is social disparity in the society. Most relationships are based on the functions in their lives. If the relationship is functional then people would be willing to maintain it. Otherwise, many people tend to avoid it. Consequently, there is a sense of alienation among the people. The problem of alienation has marked the condition of modern man, and this problem has become a great concern in some areas of cultural activity such as in sociology, philosophy, and literature. The broad attention that is focused on the condition of alienation indicates that the world is now faced with the symptoms of social sickness (Novack 1973: 5-6). Alienation has been used to describe various social phenomena that include the feelings of loneliness, powerlessness, meaninglessness, isolation, and separation and discontent with society. Alienation is a sense of not belonging.

There are three types of alienation – alienation from oneself, from other people and from the world in which one lives, and these three forms of alienation are interrelated (Pappenheim, 2002).The Problems of Alienation in Big American Cities The development of the American economy after World War II had stimulated the physical development of the country. At that time, there was a vast development in American cities both in terms of infrastructure and population. This condition determined the patterns of social relations of the people, as people living in big cities have different social attitudes from those living in rural areas. According to Krupat, there are some characteristics attributed to big and metropolitan cities. These cities are densely and heterogeneously populated (1985:40). For many people, big cities offer great opportunities for advancement and become a symbol of limitless hope. As such, there are a great number of people moving to big cities with the hope that they can realize their dreams. However, for many other people, especially those who are trapped in the decaying inner cities, living in big cities means living in poverty, fear, isolation and disappointment (1985:14). Big cities are also characterized by modern, competitive and impersonal atmosphere. Krupat states, “City people were seen as untrusting, but often interesting, often lonely and often liberal, and most often not intruding in others’ affairs” (Krupat 1985: 40-1). Based on such characteristics, it can be argued that the sense of alienation becomes a very obvious phenomenon in big cities. People tend to mind their own business that the intruding on others would be considered a threat. Louise Wirth mentions that the great variation of city dwellers also weakens the sense of community as they come from many different races, ethnic groups, economic conditions and social classes (in Krupat 1985: 51). The heterogeneity of the population in big cities weakens the social relationships of the people, and it creates a barrier to communication. Lyn Lofland acknowledges that to live in a city is to live in a world of strangers (qtd. in Krupat 1985: 59). These statements support the sense of alienation in big cities. According to George Novack, problem of alienation has marked the condition of a society under the effects of modernism (1973: 5). Encyclopedia of Marxism defines alienation as follows Alienation is the process whereby people become foreign to the world they are living in. The concept of alienation is deeply embedded in all the great religions and social and political theories of the civilized epoch, namely, the idea that sometime in the past people lived in harmony, and then there was some kind of rupture which left people feeling like foreigners in the world, but some in the future this alienation would be overcome and humanity would again live in harmony with itself and nature .The quotation above indicates that alienation denotes the estrangement of individuals from themselves and from others.

According to philosophers, psychologists and sociologists alienation bears the following characteristics An extra-ordinary variety of psycho-social disorder, including loss of self, anxiety state, anomie, despair, depersonalization, rootless, apathy, social disorganization, loneliness, atomization, powerlessness, meaninglessness, isolation, and the loss of belief or values. This quotation shows that alienation has been used to describe various phenomena such as any feeling of separation from society and feeling of discontent with society; feelings of loneliness, powerlessness, meaninglessness, isolation and feeling that there is a moral breakdown or the loss of belief and values in the society. In the mid-twentieth century, American society had become a modern society, and people attempted to cope with modern life. In 1950s, most middle-class people developed the dominant pattern of life by becoming conformists. What most people were after was economic security, so they became very determined to achieve it. On the other hand, they became apprehensive that their values and goals of life had changed as they became too conformist in the situation (Sproat, 1972:739-40). In the midst of the rising prosperity in America, there were many social critics expressing a sense of doubt as to whether American society was becoming too complacent, too conformist and too materialistic (Tindall and Shi, 1989:815). This reality produced feelings of anxiety and alienation within the people. The white middle-class and the working class were anxious about the condition of modern American life. This problem had spread in the country showing the loss of certainty and the dimming optimism (Sproat, 1972: 740).

Alienation in American Cities as Seen in The Zoo Story
In the world of literature, the problem of alienation is depicted in the works of many prominent writers. In The Zoo Story Albee tries to portray the problem of alienation that has already become a symptom of social sickness in the United States in the mid-twentieth century. The problem of alienation that marks the modern life of the mid-twentieth century is presented through Jerry, one of the two characters in the play. Jerry is portrayed as a young man living in an apartment on the upper West Side between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West in New York City. In the mid-twentieth century New York City was very crowded as the result of the immigration and the internal migration that happened until after World War II. People with different ethnicity, culture and social classes have created the heterogeneity of the population. The heterogeneity of the population had weakened the social relationships among the people. Consequently, as a big metropolitan city, New York City was characterized by an impersonal atmosphere, and the problem of alienation became very obvious.

In The Zoo Story Albee portrays this phenomenon in American society through Jerry’s relationship with the people in the apartment and with Peter. Jerry comes from low-class society. In the apartment Jerry lives with many other people, among others are a black transvestite, a Puerto Rican family with many children, an anonymous crying woman, a person whom he has never seen, and the landlady. Even though Jerry lives together with these people he has no contact with them, except with the drunken landlady who tries to seduce him and for whom Jerry feels disgust. Jerry does not try to maintain contact with any people in the roominghouse. The fact that Jerry is unconcerned about these people is shown by the fact that he has never tried to talk with them. The description of the condition and situation in the roominghouse resembles the life style of an apartment and a densely populated area in big cities in which people do not know each other and show no concern with the next-door people even though they live closely. These people are physically connected to each other as they live under the same roof, but the formation of close relationships is difficult to maintain. Even though the landlady tries to approach and make contact with Jerry, her concern is very selfish, as she does not want to maintain real contact with Jerry. Here, the landlady only wants to show her personal sexual desires (Albee: 1960:28). The absence of personal contact among the people in the roominghouse reflects the problem of alienation and impersonality of modern and urbanite big cities. According to Simmel, this situation creates few relationships and these relationships are shallow and weak (qtd. In Krupat, 1985:131). In relation to the social relation in big cities Krupat mentions, “At its extreme we have a picture of the urbanite as a person who is physically embedded in a tight web of others yet feels psychologically almost totally isolated” (1985:131). In The Zoo Story the people in the roominghouse live under one roof, and physically they live closely one to the other. Yet, they are not psychologically related. Jerry has mentioned that there is no contact between them. Even though Jerry lives together with other people in the apartment, he does not know them, not even by name. Jerry could only identify them by their ethnicities. These people remain as familiar strangers to Jerry. The lack of contact among the people in the apartment indicates that there is an alienation that marks the condition of a modern society. Jerry even describes the apartment as “a humiliating excuse of jail” (Albee, 1960:35). The rooming house is described as a jail, thus it is similar to the image of a zoo. The bars that separate these people indicate that the isolation of human being is very apparent. The description of the apartment as “a humiliating excuse of jail” already foreshadows the significance of the title of the play. Living in a jail is like living in a zoo. People are locked in rooms, and have no chance to maintain contact with others. As has been mentioned in chapter three, the zoo is a metaphor for social relationship in modern society. In describing the situation of the roominghouse, Albee chooses the phrase in order to emphasize the sickening condition of the apartment and the feeling of the residents. Living in a very poor condition in the apartment, the people will surely feel humiliated. Later, Albee also uses an ironical tone to show two contrasting conditions in American society when Jerry articulates “[…] my house is the sickening roominghouses in New York City, which is the greatest city in the world. Amen.” (Albee, 196037). Here Albee tries to emphasize the two contrasting conditions that could be found in big American cities, in this case in New York City. As has been mentioned in chapter three, there is a contrast between Jerry’s sickening apartment and the expensive apartments and elegant buildings nearby. Jerry is a kind of person who does not have an ideal family in his life. His mother left him when he was ten and a half years old. His parents did reunite, but they died not long after that. Then Jerry lived with his aunt, who also died when he graduated from high school. His feeling of emptiness is also shown by the fact that he keeps two empty picture frames. It can be seen from the dialogs when Peter asks him

PETER. (Stares glumly at his shoes, then) About those two empty picture frames …? JERRY. I don’t see why they need any explanation at all. Isn’t it clear? I don’t have pictures of anyone to put in them. PETER. Your parents … perhaps … a girl friend … JERRY. You are a very sweet man, […]. But good old Mom and good old Pop are dead … you know? … I’m broken up about it, too … I mean really. […] so I don’t see how I can look at them, all neat and framed (Albee, 1960: 23).

This quotation indicates that Jerry does not have anybody special in his life. He does not even want to recall his parents’ life as he admits that he was broken up by this experience, and he wants it to be buried. The empty picture frames illustrate the a significance of his loneliness and emptiness, and it adds up his feeling of alienation. The problem of alienation in American society, according to Pappenheim, has become more apparent in modern time. The manifestations of the crisis are shown in the emptiness and meaninglessness of modern life, the terrible loneliness suffered by individuals and their feeling of isolation (Pappenheim, 2002). The problem of alienation that existed in the American cities was admitted by someone living in Chicago. The city is like that. In all my work, there have been the same lack of any personal touch. In all this city of three million souls, I knew none, was cared by none … I had read how the universe composed of million of stars whirlingly about. I looked up at the sky. It was just like that – an atom whirled about three million of the atoms day by day, month by month, year after year (in Bradbury and Temperely, 1994: 228). This quotation indicates that people living in American big cities actually suffered from loneliness and alienation. Alienation became a serious problem in big cities like Chicago. People were occupied by their own affairs and self-centered demands. Consequently, they failed to maintain and preserve personal communication, and this leads to the feeling of loneliness. It is quite absurd that in spite of the fact that they lived in the crowd there was no personal contact among them. There was a tragic manifestation of alienation and indifference toward human beings in American society that can be proved by the tragic murder of Katherine Genovese on March 13, 1964 in New York City. Katherine was on her way to her apartment late at night when suddenly she was attacked by someone three separate times. These three attacks lasted for about thirty-five minutes. The first two attacks occurred on the street and attracted the attention of a number of people. These people witnessed the events from the windows of their buildings. The third attack proved to be fatal as Katherine died on the spot. These people, however, remained apathetic to what had happened to Katherine. Not a single person came to help her, not even called the police (Krupat, 1985:129). This tragic manifestation of alienation obviously supports the existence of alienation and indifference in American society. A similar manifestation of alienation is depicted in The Zoo Story when Peter, after grabbing his books, rushed to leave Jerry in his dying moment. Evidence showing Jerry’s lack of contact with other people can also be seen from the fact that he did not have long relationships with women. He admits this as he says

JERRY. (Nods his hello) And let’s see now; what’s the point of having a girl’s picture, especially in two frames? I have two picture frames, you remember. I never see the pretty little ladies more than once, and most of them wouldn’t be caught in the same room with a camera […].PETER. The girls? JERRY. No. I wonder if it’s sad that I never see the little ladies more than once. […] that’s it. … Oh, wait; for a week and a half, when I was fifteen … and I hang my head in shame that puberty was late … I was a h-o-m-o-s-e-x-u-a-l. […]. And for those eleven days, I met at least twice a day with the park superintendent’s son … […]. And now; oh, I do love the little ladies; really, I love them. For about an hour (Albee, 1960:25).

Here Jerry admits that he had very little contact with ladies when he was young. His relationship with women was restricted to prostitutes only, and it was only for a very short time. The only sustained relationship, that lasted for about a week and a half, happened done when he met the superintendent’s son. This homosexual encounter happened when he was fifteen years old. Jerry also admits that his puberty was late. When someone is in a state of puberty, he has a great desire to maintain relationshipa with the opposite sex. In this case, however, Jerry’s relationship is limited to the superintendent’s son. He did not try to maintain contact or relationships with many other girls at his age. Based on such experiences Jerry finds it hard to be himself, so it can be said that Jerry is alienated not only from his fellow men in the apartment, but also from other people. It has been mentioned previously that the problem of alienation has marked the condition of a society under the effects of modernism (Novack, 1973:5).

Philosophers, psychologists and sociologists describe the characteristics of alienation as an extra-ordinary variety of anxious feelings, despair, loneliness, meaninglessness isolation and the loss of values (in Eric and Mary Josephson 12-13). From those statements it is obvious that alienation is an unavoidable phenomenon in modern society. Alienated people experience the many aspects of psycho-social disorder. These people feel isolated and lonely even though they live among a crowd. They are in a state of anxiety and despair and their life is meaningless as their hope, belief, and values are fading away. In The Zoo Story the behaviors of the people in the apartment portray the feeling of anxiety and the dimming optimism of the American people. Jerry says that the people in the apartment have strange behaviors. The colored queen, for example, always wears a rare Japanese kimono and has a strange habit of plucking his eyebrow (Albee, 1960: 22); the woman who is living on the third floor cries all the time behind the locked door (Albee, 1960:27); the landlady tries to seduce him in the entrance hall (Albee, 1960:28). These strange behaviors reflect the people’s anxiety and despair, and they show an extra ordinary psychological disorder, which according to Eric and Mary Josephson is a characteristic of alienation in modern society. These outcast people live in a modern society in New York City, but they have no apparent jobs to support themselves. They are faced with high competition and the demand for skilled jobs, but they cannot fulfill it. Consequently, these people show the extra ordinary psychological-social disorder. Jerry’s suicide also reflects a psycho-social disorder as he is in a state of hopelessness, anxiety and despair. Jerry shares the same life condition as the other people in the roominghouse, and his fatal deed shows that he has lost his reason to live. Jerry’s sense of meaning and purpose of life have drained away. In order to come to this opinion, however, is not easy because Jerry’s suicide is so unpredictable. Here, the convention of the Absurd appears in The Zoo Story. This play belongs to the Theater of the Absurd in which the spectators are faced with unpredictable and unexpected happenings. Esslin puts it that “the happenings on the stage are absurd, they yet remain recognizable as somehow related to real life with its absurdity, so that eventually the spectators are brought face to face with the irrational side of their existence” (qtd. In Kostelanetz, 1964:207).

Jerry’s final decision to commit suicide is difficult to understand as he fights only for a bench in a public park. In this case, however, the spectators are challenged and put into suspense as to what the play mean. Does he commit suicide only for this simple reason? Is there anything behind such a daring action? Here, Jerry’s action is difficult to understand, because he does not have apparent motivation to commit suicide. If we relate it to the background of the emergence of the Theater of the Absurd in which this theater is concerned with the meaningless human situation, it can be inferred that Jerry’s action reflects the meaningless of human life. His character is fragmented or distorted as his action cannot be explained in the realm of rational experience. If Jerry only fights for a bench in the park, he does not need to sacrifice his life. Jerry must have reasonable arguments for his action, but the playwright does not reveal them clearly in the play. According to Esslin, in the Theatre of the Absurd, the spectators are challenged to puzzle out what the play means (qtd. In Kostelanetz, 1964: 220).

It is, therefore, the spectator’s responsibility to come to an understanding of the play. In order to understand the play spectators have to think deeply about the circumstances that generate such an action. Esslin states that “The Theater of the Absurd is the most demanding and the most intellectual theater” (1964:220). This statement implies each spectator may find his own personal meaning, depending on his own experience and mental effort in evaluating the play. As such, in order to understand The Zoo Story the spectators are challenged to interpret and to wonder what it is all about. The spectators are challenged to think about the reasons that generate Jerry’s fatal deed. In The Zoo Story Albee has shown his great wit and talent in portraying the social sickness in American society. Through Jerry’s tragic-comic suicide Albee intends to challenge the spectators to find the meaning of the play. Reaske mentions that the main task in analyzing a play is to give explanation of the meaning of the play that can be seen from the significance attached to the actions, the characters and the imagery (81).

In The Zoo Story the meaning of the play can be seen from the significance of the characters and their actions. This play portrays a situation in which Jerry is in a state of loneliness and alienation, but desperately tries to come into contact with other people. Jerry lives in the age of affluence. Yet, he cannot enjoy the prosperity that the country provided at that time. Jerry’s suffering from the problem of alienation and social disparity has actually become the hidden motivation to commit suicide. However, on the superficial level there are no apparent reasons that lead him to commit suicide. Peter and also the spectators never expect that Jerry would take such an act. If his fatal deed is caused by the quarrel about the bench, then, it is totally unmotivated. Another tragedy of suicide is also presented in Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman has tremendously powerful ideals and is very obsessed by “the law of success.” He holds these values, but he cannot realize them. He has assumed that success comes to those who are “well-liked.” Yet, his business struggle ends in vain, as he is unsuccessful in his business. Willy suffers from such a problem, and it drives him mad and leads him to commit suicide. He even tries to commit suicide several times. In this play, there is a clear cause and effect reasoning that can be seen from the plot of the story. In Jerry’s case, however, the reasons cannot be found clearly. There are no apparent reasons that make him commit suicide. If his reason is to fight for the bench, then it is illogical. In relation to suicidal behavior, Albert Camus mentions that people commit suicide because they judge that “life is not worth living”. According to Camus, a reason for living is the same as a reason for dying. People may kill themselves for the ideas and illusions that give them the reason for living (Camus, 1991:4). Camus provides further explanation of the uselessness of suffering and the loss of the will to live. A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity. All healthy men having thought of their own suicide, it can be seen, without further explanation, that there is a direct connection between this feeling and longing for death (Camus, 1991:6). Under the above circumstances, it can be said that it is reasonable for Jerry to commit suicide. Jerry has reasons to end his life as he thinks that his suffering is useless. He has tried very hard to realize his ideas and dreams in making Peter understand the importance of contact with others. However, he fails in doing so. Then he thinks that by committing suicide he will be able to dislodge Peter from his alienation and his apathy toward the reality of life in his surrounding. Jerry does not think about the necessity to defend his life as he thinks that his life is not worth living. On the other side, Jerry has the illusion that after he commits suicide then he will be able to give a new perspective to Peter’s life. Newspapers often mention that personal problems such as deep sorrows and miserable and acute illness may comprise the primary reasons for committing suicide. Emile Durkheim also says that suicide is stimulated by modernization.

Modern societies tend to have high rates of suicide because they lack kinds of secure and interpersonal relationships. According to Durkheim, the act of committing suicide is caused by a social condition rather than by the personal temperament of the doer. A high rate of suicide shown by a certain society indicates weaknesses in the web of relationships among the members of the society and not weaknesses of the personality of the people (qtd. In Stark, 1998: 7). Based on these notions, it can be said that Jerry’s suicide is caused by the impact of modernization in American society. As has been mentioned previously, Jerry lives in New York City, which he calls the greatest city in the world (Albee, 1960:37). Yet, he does not have interpersonal relationships. He is alienated from other people. The problem of alienation that he suffers, coupled with the dimming optimism of living in a modern society have led him to commit such a fatal deed.

Conclusion

Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story portrays the problem of alienation in big American cities especially in the mid-twentieth century. Jerry is a low class proletariat who suffers from his frustrating condition and feels alienated. The absence of personal contact, feelings of loneliness, meaninglessness, isolation, separation and discontent reflect the problems of alienation and impersonality within modern big cities. In The Zoo Story Albee stresses the need for man to break his self-alienation and complacency and to make contact with his fellow men. For Albee, true human relationships are very essential. Therefore, he tries to attack the indifference and sterility of contemporary American society. The Zoo Story carries a message for people living in modern life who are bound within individual walls. All in all, this play challenges not only American life in the mid-twentieth century, but also the void of life in modern times. The absurdity of life, as depicted in the play, can be overcome by building the awareness that humans are social beings, therefore they need to build positive and meaningful relationship with others. In order to live in harmony, however, people need the nerve to break the bars and walls limiting their lives.

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