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Jerry as an existentialist hero in The Zoo Story by Edward Albee

The Zoo Story by Edward Albee explores the themes of existentialism.It is mainly through Jerry , a “permanent transient”,  the playwright expounds the central themes of existentialism. Existentialism treats an individual as a conscious being who leads a life of anguish,absurdity,and alienation amidst the encircling nothingness and to whom death is as unimportant as the birth. In this case Jerry comes out as a perfect symbol of the existentialist individuals who are conscious and whose consciousness makes them suffer.

Conscious existence

The first existentialist standpoint is that man is a coscious subject and he is nothing but his own conscious existence.As we go through the play we see that Jerry has the most conscious mind.He may belong to the lower elements of the society,but still he is highly conscious about his isolation from the other humans and also the general loneliness and anguish of existence.The way he gives the description of his dwelling,his personal life and his relation with other characters shows that he is very much aware of the his existence.

Jerry tells Peter about his drab and dreary existence.He lives in a crowded four-storey brown-stone rooming house and has no contact with other dwelllers of the building.He tells Peter about two picture frames ,both empty.His parents are dead and apparently they had not meant much to him when they were alive.’I have no feeling about any of it that I care to admit’.From his conversation with Peter it becomes apparent that he also does not believe in God.So,Jerry is shocked and dismayed by the conclusion that he has reached that God has abandoned him, just as his parents did.

Existentialist anguish

Jerry has moved from the first stage of existentialism, the recognition of the absence of God, and the ensuing despair, to the level of anguish. The sense of anguish,which can be defined as a general uneasiness is the second theme of existentialism.

Anguish,the underlying,all-pervasive,universal condition of human existence,sees human existence as fallen and human life as lived in suffering and sin,guilt and anxiety. The sense of anguish is closely related with another existentialist theme that is absurdity.According to the theory to exist as a human being is inexplicable and wholly absurd.Each of us is simply here,thrown into this time and place.So,the life of an individual is an absurd contingent fact.

Stuck in this level of anguish and absurdity, Jerry truly is terrified. As a social outcast ,Jerry has experienced the anguish and absurdity.

For Jerry both society and the entire human condition are absurd and as frustrating as his image of the zoo; ’With everyone separated by bars from everyone else ,the animals for the most part from each other and always the people from the animals’.The cages are these social convention and false values ,while the animals symbolically represent different categories of human beings.In order to avoid this condition Jerry tries to make contact with others.He even tries to make a connection with his landlady’s dog, even referring to it as his “friend” after the attempted poisoning, but they are not friends at all. Jerry tells Peter that he and the dog now, “…regard each other with a mixture of sadness and suspicion, and then we feign indifference…we neither love nor hurt, because we do not try to reach each other” (35-36). This is now how Jerry sees his relationship to everyone in life. Jerry labels himself a “permanent transient” (37). He belongs nowhere. His life is futile and without meaning. Jerry cannot live in this chaotic universe because his life is so meaningless, but instead of committing suicide, he forces a connection with Peter, first by making him fight for his bench, and then by impaling himself on his own knife once Peter has it thrust out in front of himself in a stance of defense.

Nothingness and death

A fourth theme that pervades existentialism is that of nothingness.If a person lives in total isolation without any structures ,then his life is but a nothingness. Related to the theme of nothingness is the existentialist theme of death.Death is the most authentic momemnt in a person’s life.If a person acknowledges death,and faces it squarely,he will be able to free himself from the anxiety of death and emptiness of life.The unware person tries to live as if death is not actual,he tries to escape its reality.Thus the most significant moment of Jerry’s life is the moment of his death.So,Jerry’s suicide must be perceived not as negative escape from life ,but as a positive existentialist choice which succeeds in conveying to Peter the superior consciousness of the absurd.From the death of Jerry ,Peter learns the meaniglessness and absurdity of life.So,in a sense Peter becomes wiser after the death of Jerry.From now he will be more conscious about the meaninglessness and futility of human life.

But Peter is also an existentialist ,though in a different sense. Given this choice, the goal would seem to be to reach the level of the Existential Hero, represented in The Zoo Story by Peter. Peter has evolved through the various stages of existentialism to the point where he has made that leap of faith and has taken responsibility for his own existence and lives his life responsibly and morally. He works at a job that he appears to like, though it may not be his “dream” job, but then he has given up dreams already. He knows he will never have a son and that yes, “that’s the way the cookie crumbles” (16). He has the wife and kids and cats and parakeets, yet he still isolates himself from this family every Sunday afternoon when he goes to a relatively deserted part of the park to sit on “his bench” and read his book in solitude in a place where he is not likely to be bothered. Self-inflicted isolation and escape through reading are his reward after a week of work and meeting his moral responsibilities. He is not seeking connections with other people or animals. He will not die from smoking his pipe (13) because he has become a man of moderation. He has settled for what life has handed him. Like the playing cards discussed in the play, he is playing the hand in life that he was dealt, and he would do so, probably without complaint, until he dies, except for his unfortunate and brief encounter with Jerry.

Sometimes in the shortest of plays, there is the greatest insight into the human condition. This play brings forth not only an intellectual depiction of the isolation and alienation many people live with day to day, but also an emotional response to this position through the characters of Peter and Jerry. Both characters fit the definition of existentialism, but on different levels. By the very nature of depicting this variance in existentialism, Edward Albee has impacted our view of human nature and of those who live outside the realm of “spiritual comfort.”

But Peter is also an existentialist ,though in a different sense. Given this choice, the goal would seem to be to reach the level of the Existential Hero, represented in The Zoo Story by Peter. Peter has evolved through the various stages of existentialism to the point where he has made that leap of faith and has taken responsibility for his own existence and lives his life responsibly and morally. He works at a job that he appears to like, though it may not be his “dream” job, but then he has given up dreams already. He knows he will never have a son and that yes, “that’s the way the cookie crumbles” (16). He has the wife and kids and cats and parakeets, yet he still isolates himself from this family every Sunday afternoon when he goes to a relatively deserted part of the park to sit on “his bench” and read his book in solitude in a place where he is not likely to be bothered. Self-inflicted isolation and escape through reading are his reward after a week of work and meeting his moral responsibilities. He is not seeking connections with other people or animals. He will not die from smoking his pipe (13) because he has become a man of moderation. He has settled for what life has handed him. Like the playing cards discussed in the play, he is playing the hand in life that he was dealt, and he would do so, probably without complaint, until he dies, except for his unfortunate and brief encounter with Jerry.

Sometimes in the shortest of plays, there is the greatest insight into the human condition. This play brings forth not only an intellectual depiction of the isolation and alienation many people live with day to day, but also an emotional response to this position through the characters of Peter and Jerry. Both characters fit the definition of existentialism, but on different levels. By the very nature of depicting this variance in existentialism, Edward Albee has impacted our view of human nature and of those who live outside the realm of “spiritual comfort.”

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